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Exxon Mobil Posts Record Fourth-Quarter Profit

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The world's largest public oil company earned more than $10 billion in its most recent quarter. Exxon Mobil's profits set a new record for the company and capped a year in which Exxon made more money than any American firm in history. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Exxon's eye-popping profit of $10.7 billion in the fourth quarter was even better than Wall Street expected, and the company's stock price surged above $63 a share. The sky-high price of oil is boosting profits at Exxon and other energy companies. Chevron made more than $4 billion in the fourth quarter, and Conoco-Phillips took in more than $3.5 billion.

Ordinarily, public companies like to crow about results like that, but the oil majors are deliberately downplaying their profits for fear of angering drivers paying high prices at the gas pump. Chief Economist John Felmy of the American Petroleum Institute says oil company profits have to be kept in perspective.

Mr. JOHN FELMY (Chief Economist, American Petroleum Institute): These earnings are very large because the companies are very large. So far for this quarter, we're making about 9 cents on the dollar for the companies who have reported. So if you look at our profit rate, we're slightly above the average for all industries and less than many other industries, such as pharmaceuticals, banks, computer companies.

HORSLEY: High prices have done little to dampen Americans' appetite for oil and gasoline. Drivers are still burning more gas than they were a year ago, when the fuel sold for less than $2.00 a gallon. Exxon Chairman Rex Tillerson acknowledged in a statement today that there's a great deal of public interest in global energy prices. He added that consumers want and need energy that's both reliable and affordable.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on whether consolidation in the oil industry is pushing gasoline prices higher. Representatives of the oil companies refuse to attend. But Tyson Slocum, of the consumer group Public Citizen, will testify.

Mr. TYSON SLOCUM (Acting Director, Public Citizen): These record profits are a clear sign that we need some form of a windfall profits tax to recapture some of those record profits and return it to the American people in the form of bigger investments to alternatives to these high prices.

HORSLEY: Exxon says its big profits allow it to keep investing in conventional supplies of oil and natural gas. The company spent more than $5 billion on capital and exploration in the fourth quarter. Exxon also spent nearly that much rewarding investors by buying back shares of its own stock.

Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.