DALLAS – If you’ve been cursing big oil companies when you fill up at the gas pump these past few months, check your retirement portfolio.

Owners of oil company stakes – even folks with a few shares in mutual funds – hit the big one in the third quarter.

Two of the world’s largest oil companies, ConocoPhillips and BP, already reported leaps in profit for the third quarter this week. Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell are expected to report big profits today, and Chevron will chime in on Friday.

“They’re clicking on all cylinders,” said Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst with Oppenheimer in New York. “Exxon Mobil is going to have record earnings.”

Profit for major oil and gas companies rose in the third quarter because prices for oil and gas rose, and because prices for refined products, like gasoline and diesel, rose even faster.

What are oil companies doing with all that money? They’re giving it to shareholders and reinvesting in their businesses. But some lawmakers have said oil companies should invest more money in projects that will bring extra supply to U.S. consumers quickly, thus bringing energy prices down.

“Oil companies are enjoying record profits. That’s fine. This is America,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in a news conference Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. But, he said: “These companies need to invest in America’s energy infrastructure and resources. … The oil companies need to do their part.”

Houston’s ConocoPhillips said Wednesday its third-quarter net income rose 89 percent to $3.8 billion, or $2.68 a share. Revenue rose 43 percent to $49.7 billion.

“During the quarter, our U.S. Gulf Coast operations were significantly impacted by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Dennis. Despite these impacts our overall operating performance for the quarter was good, and we continued to benefit from the strong commodity price environment,” said Jim Mulva, ConocoPhillips chief executive, in a statement on Wednesday.

A chunk of that profit will go to shareholders, but most will be reinvested in the oil and gas industry.

“They are generating cash faster than they can spend it,” said Oppenheimer’s Gheit, of the big oil companies. “Just because they have money, it doesn’t mean they’re going to spend it like a drunken sailor.”

Finding good investments quickly is difficult. Any new project to find oil or natural gas, produce it, or refine it will take years to complete. The investments are huge, and they’re risky – the payoff could disappear if oil and gas prices dive.

Further, because those projects take so long to complete, they won’t immediately alleviate high prices.

ConocoPhillips said Wednesday it had about $13.6 billion cash on hand during the third quarter, $1.3 billion of which was generated during the quarter. The company invested 63 percent of that cash into capital programs, or new projects to expand the company.

The rest went toward paying dividends to shareholders, paying off debt and buying back shares. Companies buy back shares in order to support the share price.

“We have a rather unique situation in our company that, yes, we have … strong cash flow, but we redeploy a good share of most of our cash flow right back into the growth and development of our businesses,” Mulva said, adding that means exploration, production, refining, marketing.

The American Petroleum Institute estimates that 64 percent of investment by oil and gas companies this year goes toward drilling and exploration projects. About 12 percent goes toward production and eight percent toward refining.

As Hastert in Washington called for more energy investment, other lawmakers considered new taxes on oil and gas companies. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., suggested a Strategic Energy Fund help consumers with energy costs, promote conservation and stimulate new research. According to a speech on her Web site, Clinton said, in light of big oil profits, she would add to the fund by imposing a fee on energy companies that don’t invest in such projects on their own.

The American Petroleum Institute defended the industry Wednesday by pointing out that, while oil company profits are large, the profit margins, or the profit compared to revenue, are within the ranges of other U.S. companies. Oil margins this year are stronger than margins for media companies and retailers, but smaller than margins for banks and pharmaceutical companies. That’s because the process of taking oil from the ground to the gasoline tank is expensive and very risky.

ConocoPhillips’ costs in the third quarter rose 39 percent to $43 billion.


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