NEW YORK, Consumers and politicians may be annoyed at high oil prices, but they aren’t persuading Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) or Chevron (CVX.N) to increase production dramatically. Neither firm posted big increases in output last quarter despite surges in commodity prices caused by the Ukrainian conflict. That’s a rational decision based on the outlook for future prices and investor pressures. But it won’t make them friends in the court of public opinion.
Take Chevron. The firm’s quarterly profit more than quadrupled in the first quarter compared to a year ago to $6.3 billion. Yet production was flat between the two periods, at 3.1 million barrels per day of oil and other commodities. Sure, the $313 billion firm run by Mike Wirth says capital expenditures and acquisitions, including affiliates, will be more than 50% higher this year, as the company ramps up shale production in the Permian. But that’s still less than it spent in 2019, when the price of West Texas Intermediate oil averaged about half what it is today.
Exxon is similar. While the $365 billion firm’s bottom line took a hit from a $3.4 billion after-tax charge on its Russia Sakhalin-1 operation, profit still doubled. Yet production at 3.7 million barrels a day of oil equivalent was the same as the first quarter last year. Likewise, it’s investing in shale and expects to lift Permian production by 25% this year compared to 2021. But its capital expenditures are similarly growing at a slower pace than in 2019.
One explanation is the market’s skepticism that the price of oil in the future will remain as high. The price of WTI for May 2023 is around $88 per barrel, and lower at dates beyond that, a somewhat rare market phenomenon known as backwardation. So companies have the incentive to increase production from sources that can be profitable quickly, like shale. But investments in higher cost, slower-to-ramp megaprojects aren’t ideal. Moreover, investors who have previously been burned by oil firms’ overexuberance, are pressuring firms to be cautious and are stressing the importance to return cash.
The big firms are listening, with Exxon just upping its share buyback program to $30 billion. That won’t comfort customers filling up at the pump, or politicians like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has complained the firms’ should rein in buybacks that do nothing to deal with high oil prices.