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Big Oil Posts Big Profits

By the time you read this, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A) will have released its first quarter earnings. It is the last of the five supermajors — the integrated oil and gas companies that are commonly referred to as Big Oil — to release Q1 earnings. I won’t see Shell’s earnings before this article is published, but based on what Total (NYSE: TOT), ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), Chevron (NYSE: CVX) and BP (NYSE: BP) have already reported, they should be pretty good.

Total kicked things off on April 27th. The company announced operating income in Q1 of $2.767 billion, up 47% from the year-ago period. Cash from operations jumped from $1.88 billion a year ago to $4.70 billion. The higher income was driven almost entirely by its Exploration & Production segment, which saw operating income surge from $386 million in Q1 2016 to $1.38 billion in Q1 2017. That, in turn, was primarily driven by a realized price for Brent that was up 58% to $53.70 per barrel, from $33.90 in the year-ago quarter.

On April 28th, ExxonMobil and Chevron both reported results that beat expectations. ExxonMobil earned $4 billion in the first quarter of 2017, an increase of 122% from the first quarter of 2016. Cash flow from operations was $8.2 billion in Q1, versus $4.8 billion a year ago.

As with Total, the primary drivers behind the higher profit and cash flow were higher oil and gas prices versus a year ago. The first quarter of 2016 saw the closing price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) average $33.35 a barrel (bbl), while the first quarter of this year saw prices average $51.84/bbl – a year-over-year increase of 55%.

In addition to being one of the world’s largest oil producers, ExxonMobil is the largest natural gas producer in the U.S. So, the company was also significantly helped by natural gas prices that were 51% higher than they were in the year-ago period. ExxonMobil’s Upstream earnings were $2.3 billion, compared to a loss of $76 million in the first quarter of 2016. The company’s U.S. oil production rose by 2.6%, although natural gas production in the U.S. fell by 5%.

Unlike Total’s Downstream earnings, which declined year-over-year by 9%, ExxonMobil’s Downstream earnings were $1.1 billion, up 21% from the first quarter of 2016. Downstream U.S. earnings were $292 million, up 56% from the first quarter of 2016. Higher downstream earnings were a result of both higher margins and higher volumes compared to 2016.

Chevron reported much better earnings as well. For Q1, Chevron reported earnings of $2.7 billion, versus a loss of $725 million a year ago. Chevron’s Upstream segment swung from a loss of $1.459 billion in Q1 2016 to a profit of $1.517 billion this year. Chevron’s U.S. upstream earnings went from a loss of $850 million in Q1 2016 to an $80 million profit for the just-completed quarter. 

Chevron’s Downstream earnings improved from $735 million to $926 million. The improvement was primarily a result of lower operating expenses, higher margins and an impairment that the company had taken in Q1 2016. 

Finally, BP reported Q1 revenue of $55.86 billion, versus $49.98 billion expected by Thomson Reuters analysts’ consensus. Revenue was 44% higher than for Q1 2016. The company also beat estimates with net income of $1.51 billion, compared to analysts’ expectations of $1.26 billion, and a loss of $583 million in Q1 2016. Total hydrocarbon production increased from 2.32 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) per day in Q1 2016 to 2.39 million BOE/day in Q1 2017. This was driven primarily by higher oil production, which was partially offset by lower natural gas production. 

Despite the outstanding Q1 results, these companies are all trading just about where they did a year ago. ExxonMobil is 6% cheaper, while Chevron led the pack with a gain over the past year of 4.4%. In the next article for The Energy Strategist, I will take a deeper dive into the earnings of Chevron and BP, with particular attention paid to the cash flow of each. Companies that can generate positive cash flow in this environment are companies that will survive regardless of how long it takes oil prices to move higher.  

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