Big Oil Is Booming

It apparently doesn't matter whether you hang your hat in Texas or The Hague. The hard-boiled market is a tough sell these days when it involves reacting to positive earnings comparisons. That, at least, is the lesson that Big Oil's ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) have learned during the past couple of days.

Exxon, the big enchilada of Big Oil (if you'll pardon the use of a couple of big, mixed metaphors), outdid expectations for its first quarter results. But as was the case with ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , which had earlier kicked off reporting by the major integrated oil companies, the big company's share price didn't reflect what turned out to be a 69% year-over-year jump in earnings.

Energy's Babe Ruth
For the quarter, the company managed to chalk up earnings of $10.65 billion, or $2.14 per share -- a healthy jump from the $6.3 billion, or $1.33 per share, that it registered in the first quarter of 2010. At the same time, its revenue was up 26% to $114 billion. The per-share line topped analysts' consensus expectations of $2.07. For the sake of perspective, earnings for the quarter were the highest recorded by the company since the third quarter of 2008 when -- benefiting from crude oil prices that barely missed reaching $150 a barrel -- Exxon's corporate earnings reached a whopping $14.8 billion.

In the most recent quarter, upstream earnings reached $8.7 billion, up nearly 50% from the comparable quarter a year ago. As you might suspect, a significant portion of the increase was related to crude oil realizations, which increased by more than $25 a barrel -- and received some help from the natural gas side, where prices received were up $0.72 per thousand cubic feet.

Furthermore, the company's production in oil-equivalent volumes expanded by 10.5% from the first quarter of 2010, as the benefits of unconventional resources in the U.S. (read the XTO acquisition) and the ramp-up of a Qatar project kicked in. At the same time, there were countervailing forces to the higher production, including the effects of higher prices on OPEC volumes, downtime, and divestments. Nevertheless natural gas production in the quarter was up 24% to 14,525 million cubic feet per day.

Paddling downstream
Traveling downstream, earnings increased year-on-year to $1.1 billion, from near breakeven a year ago. Key factors in the improvement included improved refining margins, which were set against somewhat tighter marketing margins.

While we tend not to think of ExxonMobil as a chemical company, it's noteworthy that its chemical unit earned a record $1.5 billion in the quarter, up 21% from a year ago. And to put some meat on the bones of these numbers -- while indicating the likely role of the sector in Exxon's future -- its chemical unit recently announced the opening of the Shanghai Technology Center, which will serve the rapidly expanding Chinese petrochemical market.

Along with its operating successes, Exxon continues to benefit its shareholders through its active buyback program, which involved $5 billion in expenditures during the quarter. Further, the company has also declared a $0.47 per-share quarterly dividend, an approximately 7% increase over the prior rate.

A slippery slope
But, despite its accomplishments -- clearly including the production ramp-up -- shares of ExxonMobil actually slid ever so slightly on Thursday. At the same time, Royal Dutch Shell, the biggest oil and gas company based in Europe, saw its profit increase to $6.29 billion, or 30% higher than the $4.82 billion it rang up for the first quarter of 2010. On a per-share basis, the company's earnings increased to $1.02, versus 29% in the comparable 2010 quarter.

Unlike Exxon, Shell's production was down about 3% year-on-year, yet the company's shares increased slightly (less than 1%) on Thursday.

Looking at its upstream sector, Shell's earnings were $4.64 billion, an 8% improvement from the first quarter of 2010. Liquids realizations rose by 32% and gas was 11% higher. During the most recent quarter, the company worked in concert with Quatergas, completing an initial liquefied natural gas cargo from the Quartergas 4 project (in which Shell has a 30% share). The project is eventually expected to deliver 7.8 million tons of liquefied natural gas per year, along with 70 thousand barrels per day of condensate and liquefied petroleum gas.

She sells sea shells
Downstream, Shell's earnings reached $1.65 billion for the quarter, up 112% versus the year-ago quarter. A considerable amount of the company's activity downstream during the quarter involved the sale of non-core assets, including properties in the U.S., Africa, the United Kingdom, and Chile.

Now that we're in the middle of quarterly reporting by a host of the world's major oil companies, comparisons become somewhat easier. For instance, higher oil prices and improved refining margins boosted Chevron's (NYSE: CVX  ) earnings by 36%, Total's (NYSE: TOT  ) by 51%, and Occidental's (NYSE: OXY  ) by 46% -- despite the prior presence of the latter two companies in a now essentially shut-in Libya. Among the few companies whose results we're still awaiting is Brazil's Petrobras (NYSE: PBR  ) , which will report in about two weeks.

Nevertheless, you've surely noted that the huge, geographically diverse, and technologically sophisticated ExxonMobil leads the earnings contest at this point. For that reason, I suggest that Fools with a thirst for energy investments make certain that you keep up with the big company by adding it to My Watchlist, our personalized (and free) stock monitoring service.

Chevron, Petroleo Brasileiro, and Total are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of Petroleo Brasileiro and ExxonMobil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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