Big Oil's Monster Profits Bring Political Outcry

The dangers in the world, particularly the most recent conflict in the Middle East, have sent oil prices to record levels. At the same time, Big Oil's profits have risen into the stratosphere. The earnings reported today astound.

From April to June, Exxon earned $114 million a day -- $80,000 a minute. Or look at it this way: In 30 seconds, the Exxon Mobil Corp. makes about what an average American family earns in an entire year.

"They're clearly getting rich at the expense of their customers," said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. "This is a good that's essential. You need it to get to work. You need it to heat your home."

The profits of Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron are up an average of 39 percent since last year -- that's 2½ times the average profit gain (14.9 percent) of the nation's biggest companies.

The question now is how big oil will spend its windfall.

Today Exxon said it would spend $7 billion buying back its own stock, enriching shareholders. Last quarter it spent $6 billion buying back stock. Only $4 billion went to exploring for new sources of oil.

"It's important to remember that the companies are not owned by space aliens. They're owned by millions of Americans who need dividends," said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. "They've invested their hard-earned money in these companies, and they're the true owners."

The industry defended its profits today, saying they are in no way excessive. But there was also the familiar outcry on Capitol Hill of Democrats denouncing the companies' profits and calling for some kind of relief for consumers.