Energy expert weighs in on record oil profits

January 30, 2009 8:16:43 PM PST
Gasoline prices hit painful levels a few months ago, but even as prices dropped as demand slackened, it did not hurt oil company profits.

Exxon Mobil, the country's largest producer, reported income of $85 billion in the last quarter of 2008, a profit of almost $8 billion.

San Ramon-based Chevron, the second ranked oil refiner, had income of $43 billion and a profit just shy of $5 billion.

"I certainly don't like it, but at the same time, I think that with the economy being as it is, that anyone who can make a profit tends to want to do just that," Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California's Energy Institute, said, but future profits may fall if oil prices remain low.

"The price of oil during 2008 hit some record highs, and they made a lot of money," Borenstein said. "They're going to make a lot less money when that oil's in the [$40 range.] In the fourth quarter, they had some much higher prices than that, but by the end of the quarter, the prices were down around $40 a barrel."

Oil prices reflect the global recession as demand drops, according to Borenstein. Prices are expected to rise as the economy improves.

Still, there are skeptics who suspect there is market manipulation.

"Oil per barrel has collapsed, yet prices have come all the way down to $160, oil prices have continued to go down, and now gas prices are coming back up because they slowed down production," Berkeley resident Jeff Crews said.

The oil industry, of course, is subject to volatility, and the next challenge could come at the end of the weekend when 30,000 U.S. refinery workers are threatening to strike.