Big Oil's Big Year = Consumer Frustration

For big oil, 2008 has proven to be a very good year, and with industry giant ExxonMobil reporting earnings of $11.68 billion today — the biggest quarterly profit ever by any U.S. corporation — things continue to look up.

Royal Dutch Shell previously reported a 5 percent spike and a net income of $7.9 billion. Last year the combined sales of the top five oil companies added up to $1.5 trillion, which is greater than the gross domestic product of Canada.

Since then, crude prices have soared by as much as 50 percent. That combined with big paydays for oil companies has critics and consumers calling for more alternatives to foreign oil.

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"We're working very hard to expand and diversify U.S. energy supply," BP American Inc. chairman and president Robert A. Malone told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

Even former oil man T. Boone Pickens has been pushing a wind-farm plan to curb the country's foreign oil dependence.

Yet Wall Street Access oil analyst Bernard Picchi said many big oil companies aren't using much of their profits to fund oil alternatives.

"While they are making an effort, odds are they spent more on their advertising, than the research," he said.

Comparing the top five oil companies, Exxon spent just 1 percent of its $41 billion in profits last year on alternative energy sources. Exxon has said publicly it's not in the renewable energy business, but rather focused on oil and gas.

BP invested the most in alternatives, but that still was only 2.9 percent of BP's profits — around $2 billion, Picchi said.

Some experts have argued that oil companies won't have incentive to change their policies until Washington changes its policies.

But Michael Santoli, of Barron's, said part of the backlash to large profits is a "visceral issue."

"I understand the emotional response. It seems as if they should be able to do more but these are long-term spending plans," he said on "Good Morning America" today. "I'll point out on a net basis overall Exxon Mobil makes less profit per dollar of sales than McDonald's or Coca-Cola makes."

Santoli said of the world's largest publicly traded oil company's revenue, 45 percent went to taxes and 30 percent were actually profits. He added that 11 percent went to administrative and operating costs and 12 percent toward production costs.

"A company, when it has profits, can decide to reinvest it in new business in looking for more of the resource. Exxon clearly thinks it doesn't have enough profitable opportunities to do that over the long term," Santoli said. "I would also point out we've had oil busts in the 80s and 90s and big companies were burned for spending too much."

Santoli said even if a company only spends 2 percent of its profit or revenue on researching alternative energy sources, that's still a large amount of money.

"Two percent of an enormous number is an ever-rising big number in terms of dollars spent," he said.

"To be fair to the oil companies, there isn't much of an energy policy or plan in Washington. That's really the major problem now that must be changed and figured out."

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