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Whats Up With Those Gas Prices?

Paul Morris, Getty Images

The next time you let out a sigh as you fill your tank with $4 gas, here’s something to consider: Your pain is their gain.

The last of the Big Five oil companies announced first-quarter earnings Friday, so the totals are in.  According to the Huffington Post, between the five of them, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips made $34 billion in profits in the first three months of 2011 — up 42 percent from a year ago.

That’s about $110 for every man, woman, and child in the United States — in just three months.

Exxon alone cleared a modest $10.7 billion profit from January through March, up 69 percent from 2010. That’s $82,175 a minute.

Why the staggering increase in earnings?  Because you’re paying over $4 a gallon for gas.

Gas prices shoot up when oil prices shoot up, and when oil prices shoot up for reasons that have nothing to do with how much it costs to bring it out of the ground, it’s a windfall for the people who produce it.

The average cost to produce a barrel of oil, including exploration, development, extraction and taxes, is about $30, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration survey. The going rate to buy one is about $113.

Why is the price so high? Part of it is increased demand and political worries. But Goldman Sachs acknowledged earlier this month that speculation is at least partially responsible, driving oil prices up faster and higher than supply and demand could possibly explain.

That means the people who are betting on oil prices are actually making the price of oil go up.

And while the pain is widely felt — consider all of us regular folks who are agonizing over how to make it to the end of the month — the benefits are not being widely shared.

The industry’s powerful Washington lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, argues that the staggering earnings simply reflect oil and gas companies’ tremendous contributions to the economy, and that their stock prices are shoring up the nation’s pension funds.  Do I feel something trickling down on me?  

And yet, the fact of the matter is that every visit to the gas pump reflects a transfer of money from the many to the few — and in most cases, from the not-so-rich to the super-rich.

By and large, the oil companies’ profits are not finding their way back into the communities from which they came; are not being used to create more jobs; and are not being invested in new equipment and exploration.

Some of that money is going back out the door in the form of larger dividends to stockholders. But in the case of two of the big five in particular — Exxon and ConocoPhillips — more than half of their total profits are being used to buy back their own stock.

Fully $5.7 billion of Exxon’s haul went to buy back its own stock — and the company announced that it expects to buy back yet another $5 billion’s worth in the second quarter of the year. Conoco earned $3 billion in the first three months of 2011 — and spent $1.6 billion of that to buy back 21 million of its own shares.

“They’re basically enriching themselves,” says Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “With this windfall, they enrich the board of directors, senior managers, and shareholders.”

Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University, studies wealth distribution. His latest study includes data through 2007. When it comes to total equity in stocks, Wolff says, “it’s still very concentrated in the hands of the rich.”

“Less than half of households owned stock as of 2007,” he says. “Probably less now” because of the financial crisis, he suspects: “Probably more like 45 percent, maybe less.” That includes 401ks, mutual funds and the like.

“Even that really overstates things because a lot of the people who do own stock own very small amounts,” Wolff says. As of 2007, the percentage of households that owned $5,000 or more of stock was 35 percent; only 22 percent owned $25,000 or more.

Who’s got the rest? The wealthiest 1 percent of households has 38 percent, Wolff found; the wealthiest 5 percent has 69 percent; the wealthiest 10 percent has 81 percent.

The bottom 60 percent of households owns 2.5 percent of the total stock. Not so very much.

There’s another thing the big oil companies are doing with their profits: they’re hoarding them. If precedent holds, as soon as oil prices started shooting up again, a lot of that money started going into the bank for safekeeping — and adding yet more to the $1 trillion or so in corporate cash lying fallow and slowing the recovery.

And as it happens, a not insubstantial chunk of last quarter’s profits were a direct gift — from the taxpayers. Somewhere between $4 billion and $9 billion of the industry’s annual profits comes from federal subsidies.

President Barack Obama has proposed repealing $4 billion a year in subsidies; the American Petroleum Institute says the proposal would actually cost the industry about $90 billion over the next decade.

Although the repeal would neither increase nor decrease the price of gas, it would take a bite out of Big Oil. And pushing for the repeal will almost inevitably highlight the modern Republican Party’s nearly lockstep allegiance to the thriving oil and gas interests — something that, in a period of high gas prices and even higher profits, couldn’t be good for them. 

So lets raise our glass to lower gas prices!

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