In a table accompanying an article on oil company profits in Sunday's Business and Finance section, the earnings for Standard Oil Co. (Indiana) for the first nine months of 1979 were incorrect. The correct figure is $1.18 billion.
Oil company profits and political rhetoric are rising in lock step.
Profits at 25 major U.S. oil companies almost doubled in the third quarter, rising to $6.5 billion from $3.4 billion in the same quarter a year ago.
As the company reports began to roll in, Carter administration officials seized upon them as an excuse to issue new calls for passage of a tough version of the "windfall" tax legislation that will be on the Senate floor this week. President Carter himself spoke darkly of "a one-trillion-dollar giveaway to the oil companies" if Congress fails to act.
The companies hunkered down. The international giants quickly pointed out that most of heir higher profits came from overseas, not the United States. The windfall tax, of course, would not affect those earnings because it is not a profits tax at all but rather an excise tax to be levied on each barrel of crude oil produced in this country.
Only a small portion of the profits that have heightened the political rhetoric would have been affected by the windfall tax. But the tax was proposed in the first place to try to recapture part of the increase in oil company revenues that will occur as the price of U.S. crude oil gradually is decontrolled between now and October 1981. Little of that decontrol has occurred yet, so oil company revenues have yet to be affected by it.
If price controls had been lifted a year ago and U.S. crude had been sellings at world prices, the 25 companies still would have additional earnings of $3 billion or so in the third quarter because of this year's big runup in crude oil prices. This, of course, does not include any added revenue from closing the gap between controlled and world market prices as they stood a year ago.
As it was, worldwide revenues for the 25 companies climbed 28 percent for the first nine months of this year to $276 billion from last year's $216 billion as profits rose 73 percent from $9.5 billion to $16.4 billion. And chances are, the percentage increases for all of 1979 will be even greater.
In percentage terms, Occidental Petroleum had the largest increase, turning a nine-month $17 million loss last year into a $374.8 million profit this year. The smallest of the 25 companies, American Petrofina, improved its earnings from $12 million to $65 million, a 442 percent increase. Occidental is a diversified international oil company; American Petrofina, primarily in refining and marketing, has only domestic operations.
Exxon, the giant, saw its revenues rise for the nine months from $46.7 billion to $59.1 billion as its profits increased 55.1 percent from $1.9 billion to $2.9 billion, largely because of foreign operations.
Exxon's U.S. petroleum and natural gas operations earned $1.2 billion this year compared with $1.1 billion in 1978. Meanwhile, its foreign operations involved oil and gas shot up from $1.2 billion last year to $2 billion in the first nine months of this year.
Mobil had the same sort of pattern. Its overall earnings were up 81 percent to $1.4 billion. Only $108 million of the increase in operating profits cam in the U.S., while$561 million came from aboard.
Standard Oil of California, which earned $1.3 billion worldwide, more than doubled its foregin profits. They rose from $408 million last year to $909 million this year. Its domestic earnings rose by $61 million to $426 million. m
Amerada Hess, the maverick which for a while refused to obey the Carter administration's voluntary price and profit margin standards, had $350 million in profits for the nine months, a 261 percent increase over last Year's $97 million.
Of the largest half-dozen companies Texaco had the biggest percentage gains. Texaco's third-quarter earnings were up 211 percent, and its nine-month earnings up 145 percent. There, too, foreign profits were most responsible.
Many of the domestic oil companies did extremely well, however, Standard Oil Co. (Ohio) benefited enormously from both increased production and higher prices for its share of Alaskan oil from Prudhoe Bay. In some ways, Sohio demonstrates what would have happened to domestic profits from oil if controls already had been lifted.
Oil from Prudhoe Bay is considered so-called, upper-tier oil for purposes of price controls. Currently it can be sold at the wellhead for about $13.50. oBut until the third quarter, its price was always far below its legal ceiling because of the high cost of transporting it through the Alaska pipeline and then by tanker to the West Coast or to Panama for transshipment through the canal to the Gulf Coast.
But more and more of the oil is being used on the West Coast, reducing somewhat the high transportation cost. And world market prices -- at which the oil can be sold as the result of a special ruling by the Department of Energy -- have risen to the point that the wellhead price is now at the legal ceiling. At the end of last year, it was selling for about $5.50 a barrel. Now it is about $13.50.
All of the companies, internation and domestic alike, greatly improved their return to stockholder equity -- that is, earnings as a percentage of the value of the company's assets owned by its stockholders. Exxon's rose from 13 percent last year to 18.5 percent this year; Mobil's from 13.1 percent to 19.2 percent.
Occidental's return on equity, which had been negative, hit 32.2 percent. Ashland's Oil's more than doubled, from 21.5 percent to 49.1 percent. Sohio's did, too, rising from 20.1 percent to 42 percent. Because Sohio has an enormous debt associated with the Alaska pipeline, however, its return on total assets was 16 percent, a lower increase than many of the others, but still nearly double last year's 8.7 percent.
The moral of all this? It's not an easy one to find.
The revenues of these 25 companies rose to $276 billion in the first nine months of 1979 as world oil prices soared. Of the $276 billion, the companies garnered $16.4 billion in profits.
Just like 1974, most of the increase was due to a combination of rises by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the higher profit margins that the companies could get in a market plagued by fears of shortages -- or in the U.S., some actual shortages, the cause of which still is being disputed.
Most but not all of the higher profits came from the companies' operations in other countries. American motorists now paying on average more than $1 a gallon for their gasoline probably find that a hard fact to accept. The president of the United States seems to as well.
The case of the windfall tax before the Senate this week can be, and has been, made on far more substantive grounds than the level of oil company profits in the third quarter of 1979. But such an approach never has been the hallmark of energy debates in this country, and on the eve of an election year that is not going to change.