Profits, Prices Spur Oil Outrage

By Steven Mufson and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 28, 2006

Exxon Mobil Corp. reported $8.4 billion in first-quarter profit yesterday, as members of Congress outraged over high gasoline prices hastened to propose measures that would boost taxes on oil firms, open new areas to drilling and provide rebates to taxpayers but would not necessarily alter prices at the pumps.

The earnings outstripped the oil giant's profit in the first quarter of last year. Given current oil market conditions, analysts said, that puts Exxon Mobil on track to break the $36 billion record profit it made last year.

Meanwhile, President Bush sought to show that he was responding to calls for action in the face of rising gasoline prices. While visiting a gasoline station in Biloxi, Miss., Bush renewed his call for Congress to give him the authority to "raise" mileage standards for all passenger cars. White House officials said later, however, that they didn't know when or how the president would use that authority.

Congress has the authority to approve changes in mileage standards for passenger cars, and the executive branch can set them for light trucks without approval from Congress. But neither Congress nor the administration has shown much interest in raising passenger car standards, which were set in the 1970s and haven't changed since 1985. In March, the Bush administration said it would raise average fuel economy standards by 1.9 miles a gallon for sport-utility vehicles, pickups and vans for models in 2008 through 2011, a long-awaited move that environmentalists said was too modest.

In Congress, anger over gasoline prices brought action in the Senate to a screeching halt yesterday, with Democrats interrupting debate over an emergency military spending bill to protest a key oil company subsidy. In a highly unusual move, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) waged a solo filibuster on the Senate floor in an attempt to force a vote on a provision that would halt support for what Wyden said was about $35 billion for oil and gas companies. "This is the big one, folks, in terms of energy subsidies," Wyden said during the five-hour standoff. "This is the one where there is no logical case . . . when oil is $70 per barrel."

Various committees and individual lawmakers scrambled to offer relief to consumers, punish suppliers and promote favorite energy-related provisions, most of them offering little or no immediate relief at the gas station pumps.

Senate GOP leaders rolled out a fat package of energy measures, including a $100 rebate to most taxpayers, and reaffirmed authority for state and federal officials to fight price gouging. The proposal also would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; Democrats called the controversial idea a deal-killer for the rest of the package.

Democrats unveiled their own ideas, including various windfall-profit rebates, a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax and alternative energy investments.

For all the criticism from Congress, Exxon Mobil's earnings fell slightly short of analysts' expectations, and company shares fell 68 cents to close at $62.42 a share.

In an attempt to simultaneously impress investors and calm politicians, Exxon Mobil spokesman Ken Cohen stressed that compared with the year-earlier quarter, the company had increased its worldwide oil and gas production by 5 percent, boosted capital spending by 41 percent and paid worldwide taxes that amounted to a 46 percent rate.

But analysts, while impressed by the production numbers, noted that much of the increase in capital spending came from sharply rising costs for oil services and that the high tax rates were a result of high crude oil prices. In many countries, sliding-scale tax rates rise as prices do; Norway taxes some portion of output at rates as high as 70 percent, and Libya's effective tax rates can go as high as 90 percent, analysts said.

Exxon also said it spent $5 billion buying back its own shares, more than the $4.1 billion spent on exploration and production. The company said it expected to spend $6 billion repurchasing its own shares in each of the remaining quarters this year.

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