NEW YORK – Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) on Thursday posted a quarterly profit of $9.9 billion, its biggest ever and one of the largest in U.S. corporate history, as it raked in a bonanza from soaring oil and gas prices.
Record profits for Big Oil at a time when consumers are paying sky-high prices for gasoline have brought calls for a windfall profits tax or other penalties on oil companies. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Tuesday called for hearings with oil companies on high energy costs.
The companies have been enjoying an unusually rosy environment for months. In the third quarter, oil prices and refining margins rose sharply after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through the Gulf of Mexico, disrupting energy operations in the region.
While Exxon's quarterly profit was up 75 percent from a year earlier, and revenue rose 32 percent to more than $100 billion, the results fell short of Wall Street forecasts due to production outages caused by the hurricanes and sharply lower profit at the company's chemicals division.
"They were a bit disappointing, but this a temporary phenomenon," said Paul Kuklinski, an analyst with Boston Energy Research/Soleil Securities. "This is largely attributable to hurricane effects."
Exxon shares closed down about 1 percent.
The world's largest publicly traded oil company said net income jumped to $9.92 billion, or $1.58 a share, from $5.68 billion, or 88 cents a share, a year earlier.
Excluding a gain of $1.62 billion from restructuring its stake in a Dutch gas transportation business, earnings were $1.32 per share, 7 cents below the average forecast among analysts polled by Reuters Estimates.
"Despite a strong showing in African oil, there is little sign of a volume growth renaissance at (Exxon), just like at most of the company's peers," Credit Suisse First Boston said in a note. "Those looking for good news on volume growth from the sector leader will have been disappointed."
Nonetheless, the result topped the $9 billion net profit reported on Thursday by Royal Dutch Shell Plc (search), though it was smaller than some out-sized profits posted in past years by companies with one-time items, like MediaOne's $26.62 billion profit in the second quarter of 1998 or Ford Motor Co.'s (F) $17.6 billion profit in the first quarter of that year.
In addition to calls for a windfall profits tax or other penalties, lawmakers and consumer advocates have been urging oil companies to expand refining capacity and take other steps to help bring down gasoline prices.
Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said on Thursday that oil firms have a responsibility to boost refining capacity in times of record profits. Marathon Oil said it would do just that, announcing a $2.2 billion expansion of its Garyville, Louisiana, refinery.
"We're already seeing some companies yielding to pressure," said Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit. "But everybody is waiting for the big lady to sing, which is Exxon."
Exxon said it did not see the point of a windfall profits tax.
"Frankly, if you're trying to encourage supply growth, it seems odd to put in place disincentives," Henry Hubble, vice president of investor relations for Exxon, said on a conference call with analysts.
Exxon's oil and gas production fell 4.7 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier as outages caused by Katrina and Rita, maintenance activities, and maturing fields more than offset higher production from new fields in West Africa.
Excluding the impact of the hurricanes, divestments and entitlement effects, output fell 1 percent.
Still, record crude oil prices — which touched $70 a barrel in the quarter — pushed earnings at its exploration and production unit to $5.73 billion, up $1.8 billion from a year earlier.
At its refining and marketing operations, profit rose to $2.13 billion, up $727 million from a year earlier. Stronger refining margins outweighed weak marketing margins and lower petroleum product sales.
Earnings at its chemicals division tumbled to $472 million, down $537 million from a year earlier, due to higher feedstock costs and lower margins.
Exxon's capital expenditures jumped to $4.41 billion from $3.63 billion a year earlier.
Shares of of Exxon, the largest of the so-called "super-major" oil companies, fell 60 cents to $55.60 on the New York Stock Exchange (search). The shares rose more than 10 percent in the third quarter but underperformed the broader Standard & Poor's integrated oil and gas index, which climbed more than 13 percent.