HOUSTON (AP) – As giant oil companies like Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips get set to report what will probably be another round of eye-popping quarterly profits, just where is all that money going?

The companies insist they’re trying to find new oil that might help bring down gas prices, but the money they spend on exploration is nothing compared with what they spend on stock buybacks and dividends.

It’s good news for shareholders, including mutual funds and retirement plans for millions of Americans, but no help to drivers already making drastic cutbacks to offset the high cost of fuel.

The five biggest international oil companies plowed about 55 percent of the cash they made from their businesses into stock buybacks and dividends last year, up from 30 percent in 2000 and just 1 percent in 1993, according to Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

The percentage they spend to find new deposits of fossil fuels has remained flat for years, in the mid-single digits.

Oil prices are set on the open market, not by the oil industry. But that hasn’t stopped public protests, a series of congressional grillings for top oil executives, and a failed attempt by lawmakers to slap Big Oil with a windfall profits tax.

ConocoPhillips has already told investors that its stock buybacks for April to June of this year will come to about $2.5 billion – nine times what it spent on exploration.

In focusing on buybacks and dividends over exploring for new oil, some critics say, oil companies jeopardize its already dwindling share of world supply.

“If you’re not spending your money finding and developing new oil, then there’s no new oil,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University who’s studied spending patterns of the major oil companies.

“It becomes a management decision,” said Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst at Standard & Poor’s. “It’s not like they’re going to the board and saying, ‘Well, I can do one or the other or the other.’ The balance sheets are flush with cash.”

“There’s only so much money you can throw at it without being ridiculous,” said Joseph Stanislaw, a senior adviser to Deloitte LLP’s Energy & Resources practice. “I think they’re doing what they can.”

It’s also important to remember it can take several years before a company produces the first barrel of oil from a new field.

One example is an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico called Thunder Horse. Operated by BP and partly owned by Exxon Mobil, the platform only last month began producing oil and gas – nine years after the field’s discovery.

“When you look at the spending that’s going on, the companies are bringing on a lot of long-term discoveries,” said John Parry, a senior analyst with John S. Herold Inc.

Big Oil isn’t alone buying back large amounts of stock, but the companies are certainly some of the biggest indulgers.

A boom in stock buybacks has been under way in corporate America since 2004. In the first quarter of this year, Exxon, ConocoPhillips and Chevron were all among the top 10 companies for share buybacks in the S&P 500.

In Washington, one Democratic proposal would impose a 25 percent tax on “unreasonable” profits of the top five oil companies, which together made more than $120 billion in 2007, and put the money toward a trust fund for investment in alternative energy sources. Republicans say it’s a gimmick that won’t help at the pump and will discourage domestic oil production.

But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the fervor for stock buybacks is a clear sign Big Oil isn’t interested in new production or alternative energy.

“When you hear that,” he said, “it screams out for a windfall profits tax.”

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