The major oil companies are going to play a familiar role in 1980: political football in an election year.
President Carter, in defense of his decision to decontrol domestic crude oil prices, undoubtedly will be castigating the companies for their enormous profits while pointing with pride to the new windfall oil tax Congress soon will pass.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, his principal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, already has picked decontrol as a major point of attack, and the oil companies can look for some brickbats from the Massachusetts senator, too.
For their part, the companies will be scratching for ways to keep their profits bulge looking as small as possible, principally by stepping up their exploration activities and other investment programs as fast as possible.
In the first nine months of 1979, 25 large oil companies earned $15.5 billion on revenues of $275.6 billion. Their proftis were up nearly 75 percent from 1978 and should be up again in 1980. They just won't be able to spend the money fast enough.
Almost none of last year's profits bulge was due to decontrol, however. It was generated instead by tight markets for crude oil and most refined products around the world that developed in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Uncertainly about future supplies spurred OPEC oil price hikes, produced sky-high spot market prices, and allowed refiners, wholesalers and retailers to fatten their profit margins on each gallon sold.
Geographically, the international oil giants such as Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, Standard Oil of California and Gulf increased their profitability far more in Europe than in the United States. Refinery margins had been depressed in that market, and in most countries price controls were either nonexistent or looser than in the United States.
But decontrol will be adding to production profits in the United States this year, even if the pending oil tax takes nearly a $10 billion slice out of them. The levy, which is before a House-Senate conference committee, is in the form of an excise tax on crude oil, and, like other such taxes, will be counted on the company balance sheets as a cost of doing business.
As the 1979 profits began to roll in, company after company announced large increases in exploration and development budgets. Nevertheless, many of them entered 1980 in a cash-rich position because, even for an oil company with exploration projects on the shelf, it takes time to get cranked up.
In the short run, the federal government and the State of Alaska probably will end up with part of that cash hoard. Last month major oil companies offered bonuses of more than $1 billion for the right to drill on potential oil properties in the Beaufort Sea offshore in the vicinity of the Prudhoe Bay field which now is producing about 1.4 million barrels of oil a day.
Companies that service the oil industry will get another big chunk. Virtually every drilling rig in the United States already is punching holes somewhere, and few of the big offshore drill rigs are idle, either. The cost of leasing and operating them is soaring, as is the price of just about everything else involved in finding and producing oil.
In the first 10 months of 1979, more than 40,000 wells were drilled in the United States, with the pace at year's end well ahead of that in the first few months of the year. As decontrol proceeds -- particularly if smaller independent companies are exempt from the new oil tax -- drilling actions will rise just as fast as physical constraints such as rig availability permit.
But spending money looking for oil and gas won't do much to ease the criticism of the big oil companies. Consumers will be bitter because gasoline prices at the pump will be going up; the only question is by how much. If the higher cost of crude oil due to decontrol gets passed through directly to retail customers, it could add up to 15 cents a gallon to gasoline prices this year.
If oil markets ease, however, refiners might not be able to pass on all those higher crude costs. In that case, the higher profit being made on crude oil production would be offset by lower margins on refined products. The margins at the corner service station, which also expanded sharply last year, could fall, too.
Some opponets of a stiff new tax on oil argue that his is exactly what will happen, and that the industry as a whole will end up with lower profits then if there had been no decontrol.
It all hinges on how tight the markets turn out to be. Energy economists generally expect consumption of just about every petroleum product to be lower in 1980 than in 1979. Overall industry profits should be higher, however, because the average price of crude oil will be so far above last year's level. Each turn of the OPEC screw, for instance, generates huge inventory gains for the large oil companies, and those are still being chalked up today.
So long as gasoline and heating oil prices are rising, the actual level of oil industry profits, or how those profits are used, matters little in an election year. The companies will take a beating. For one thing, it's not just the constituents who still believe there's an oil company conspiracy driving up prices; some of the politicians do, too.
President Carter accepts the rality of the energy crisis, say some of his former energy advisers, but deep down he also harbors notions of conspiracy. They believe his past attacks on oil companies spring as much from that gut feeling as from any need to put ample distance between himself and the industry.
Look for that political football to be punted frequently in 1980.