Big Oil Earnings: Who's Getting Paid?

Before Americans get too steamed at the oil companies for their multibillion-dollar profits, it might be worthwhile to take a hard look at oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Venezuela -- where the real money is earned.

"It's the producers who make the lion's share of the profits," said Michael Thompson of Thomson Financial, speaking of the companies that produce the massive amounts of oil used all around the world.

Saudi Arabia, for example, is expected to make $154 billion selling oil this year. The country is in the midst of a building boom.

But there's no question that the U.S. oil companies have hit a money gusher, too. On Wednesday ConocoPhillips announced first-quarter profits of $3.29 billion. Competitors ExxonMobil and Chevron, the two biggest U.S. oil companies, are expected to show even higher profits.

And executives are getting paid handsomely. When Exxon Chairman Lee Raymond stepped down recently, he received a $400 billion platinum parachute.

The huge earnings and hefty compensation packages come at a time when American consumers have seen gas prices skyrocket. The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded jumped to $2.91 last week, up 30 percent from the year-ago average of $2.24.

"Clearly, much of this high level of pay is due to the high price of gas," said Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Also profiting are companies that help big oil build new pipelines and refineries -- companies such as Halliburton. That means that Halliburton's former CEO, Vice President Dick Cheney, is making money through the stock options he still owns.

Many drivers believe President Bush benefits from high gas prices, too. But in fact, Bush is no longer in the oil business, and even when he was he lost money.

Are Gas Stations to Blame?

Drivers may also be tempted to direct their anger at gas stations. But when prices are high, stations actually make less money, in part because when drivers spend more at the pump they spend less at gas station convenience stores.

And one other counter-intuitive fact: Many drivers actually benefit from high gas prices. Forty-one percent of all oil stock is owned by public and private retirement funds, which have millions of American beneficiaries.

"Some of the politicians must think oil companies are owned by space aliens, when in fact they're owned by millions of Americans who invested their hard-earned savings in these companies," said John Felmy of the American Petroleum Institute.

But that may be cold comfort. Tomorrow's rising retirement nest egg can feel far off when you're getting pounded at the pump today.