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Oil Doesn't Want Focus on Big Profit

The most conspicuously non-oil oil ads come from the former British Petroleum, which removed the oil from its name and became BP. Now, the company advertises itself as "Beyond Petroleum." The company's logo resembles a sun with leaves.

Stumble onto a BP television ad and it is easy to assume it is a commercial for a company that makes solar panels. Or that BP is an environmental organization of some sort.

"Solar is but a tiny, tiny, tiny part of their business," Brinker said. "They make 99.9 percent of their money in the oil business."

But oil companies may have nowhere to hide as their third-quarter earnings roll in this week.

"They should be record earnings," said Jacques Rousseau, an oil analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey Group Inc. in Arlington.

In the third quarter of 2004, for instance, Exxon Mobil earned $6.2 billion. When the company reports its third-quarter results tomorrow, David Dropsey, an analyst with Thomson First Call research, expects profit of about $8.8 billion.

Chevron made $3.2 billion in last year's third quarter; Dropsey predicts the company will hit about $4.3 billion for this year's third quarter. ConocoPhillips Co. is expecting a $3.5 billion quarterly profit when it reports today, Dropsey said, up from $2 billion last year.

"Yes, our numbers are large, but when you figure the size of the companies, we are at an all-industry average," Cavaney said. "We are half the size of the returns of the financials and pharmaceuticals."

Yesterday, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called it "fine" that energy companies are reaping record profit. "However, there have been allegations of price gouging in the wake of the hurricanes. This is unacceptable, and any company who does it will be prosecuted," he said.

Cavaney said industry research showed that most consumers and lawmakers do not fully grasp how the energy industry works and why prices go up and down at the pumps. (He pointed out that average gas prices are back within 10 cents of their pre-Katrina level.)

This led his organization and many of the big oil companies to step up their hearts-and-minds media campaign. This is partially to help educate the consumers, but also to try to dissuade lawmakers from reinstituting a windfall-profit tax -- the last one stretched from 1980 to 1987 -- which oil companies fear. They say the tax drives up gasoline prices by reducing crude supply.

Last month, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) introduced a bill that would establish a windfall-profit tax on energy companies that would return some of the companies' earnings to consumers in the form of a rebate, exempting the percentage of profit the companies use for exploration.

Oil price hikes and corporate profit spikes are caused by supply and demand, Cavaney said. And the annual 5 to 10 percent decrease in the world's oil supply, combined with government resistance to allow drilling in places such as Alaska's wildlife refuge and the emergence of China as a major oil user has tipped the needle to the demand side of the equation, he said. The oil company ads seek to explain the complicated energy industry math to consumers, Cavaney said.

"We started back in the year 2000, trying to warn people that we were in a position that increases in demand were exceeding capacity," but no one listened, Cavaney said. "What we took too much for granted was that people understood our business."


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