Is Big Oil toying with us?

They are stuffing their pockets while avoiding the $4 barrier, but there could be negative repercussions.

By doubleace May 12, 2011 10:30AM

This post comes from Lynn Mucken at MSN Money.


They took us to the brink, then stopped.

Just as the average price of gasoline at America's pumps was set to push past $4 a gallon, a point at which even the most-committed SUV and speed lovers begin to question the wisdom of their devotion, Big Oil pulled back.

Over a six-day period, the price dropped about 3 cents, to $3.962 on May 11, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. The nation rejoiced. The media, most of which had "the end of the world has come" stories set to run, quickly flipped to some version of "we've been saved!"

Experts were quoted giving the usual reasons -- lower oil prices, higher U.S. dollar, disheartened speculators, less demand, suddenly mended refineries -- and predicted that $3.50 gasoline, if not just around the corner, was no more than a couple hours drive up the freeway.

Meanwhile, gas popped back up to $3.984 today. Might it be possible that the modern-day oil barons are just toying with us? 

While shrugging their collective shoulders and poor-mouthing about their debilitating rise in expenses, four of the Big 5 oil corporations announced that first-quarter profits were up, stunningly so. Exxon Mobil was up 69% over 2010, to $10.7 billion; Royal Dutch Shell up 30% to $6.3 billion; Chevron up 36.5% to $6.2 billion; Conoco Phillips up 43% to $3 billion. BP, still feeling the pain of that little spill in the Gulf of Mexico, actually saw profits drop 2%, but still made $5.5 billion.


One question: Why do they do it? 

Even factoring in a CEO's fiduciary responsibilities to the stockholders (Exxon Mobil's stock is up about 40% in the past year), or even plain and simple greed, why are they doing something that could be so long-term stupid? 

There's an old saying: "You can fleece sheep again and again, but you can only skin them once." Here are some possible downsides to this skinning:


People will reduce their driving. In 2008, Americans responded to $4 gasoline by cutting back by 15 billion miles a month, driving gas prices down dramatically. That was before the economy collapsed into the Great Recession. This year, with unemployment at 9% and family budgets squeezed, the cutbacks will be quicker and deeper. Already, gas consumption has dropped for five straight months.


Just look at the numbers: In the third quarter of 2008, Exxon announced a $14.8 billion profit. For the first quarter of 2009, it was $4.55 billion. It's a good bet that some numbers guy at Exxon has figured out the tipping point, but it might be just as likely that the number chairman Rex W. Tillerson is looking at is how much he can grow the $29 million he earned last year.

There's always mass transit, too. In San Diego, where the car is king and 12-lane freeways move traffic efficiently, ridership figures for the trolleys, bus and trains are showing double-digit increases.  


The consumption cutback won't just come in the United States either. At these prices, how long can big gas consumers India and China subsidize pump costs?


Car drivers will go small. Vehicle sales in the U.S. rose 18% in April, the biggest jumps coming in the fuel-efficient category, with the Chevrolet Cruze, which gets 40 mpg on the highway, leading the way. What does that mean?


It means the oil companies are cutting their own throats. The average American car is on the road for 10 years. Which is better for Big Oil: 10 years of dribbling gas into the Cruze or 10 years of pouring it into a Chevy Suburban, which gets 15 mpg?


Panic among the politicians. Everybody drives, and a lot of them vote. This has pushed Congress and President Obama into some tough talking. According to a breakdown by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, oil companies receive about $4 billion a year in federal subsidies and can avail themselves of tax breaks at virtually every stage of the prospecting and drilling process. Post continues after video.

"When oil companies are making huge profits and you're struggling at the pump, and we're scouring the federal budget for spending we can afford to do without, these tax giveaways aren't right," President Obama said recently.

The oil lobby is powerful, and it would be foolish to predict it will fail to protect its interests this time, but politicians sway with the prevailing winds. And right now, those potential voters are howling.


Why tick off the consumer?

Americans are a forgiving lot, but outrage over the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 cost Exxon its position atop the oil world and cut its annual profits by 27%.


Sure, car owners will still need to drive, but after being slapped around twice in three years, they might be bitter enough to keep riding the bus or switch to another brand of gasoline -- just out of spite. All those feel-good TV commercials would be a waste of money.

"Historically, gas prices have been a great source of irrationality for consumers," said Kit Yarrow, chairwoman of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and author of The Why Behind the Buy blog on the Psychology Today website.


Yarrow said the angst can be magnified: "There's a mismatch with how emotional consumers get about gas prices compared with the difference in their budgets that higher gas prices make."

Statewide averages for gasoline prices (May 12, 2011)
Alaska 4.3044.3714.4614.551
Alabama 3.7843.9184.0373.999
Arkansas 3.8203.9314.0614.009
Arizona 3.7623.8764.0054.180
California 4.2534.3534.4524.537
Colorado 3.7623.8513.9444.113
Connecticut 4.2814.4054.5194.372
District of Columbia 4.2094.3984.4984.360
Delaware 3.9824.1254.2614.196
Florida 3.9354.0834.1964.121
Georgia 3.9344.0914.2344.077
Hawaii 4.5344.6234.7234.885
Iowa 3.9663.8834.0894.071
Idaho 3.7833.8703.9704.274
Illinois 4.2944.4124.5624.162
Indiana 4.1714.2644.3654.185
Kansas 3.8673.9364.0414.047
Kentucky 3.0154.1194.2274.047
Louisiana 3.8453.9614.0663.975
Massachusetts 4.0004.1264.2394.184
Maryland 4.0404.1904.3804.178
Maine 3.9984.1024.2044.200
Michigan 4.1894.2784.3774.203
Minnesota 3.9694.0254.1554.138
Missouri 3.8503.9644.1013.920
Mississippi 3.7793.8874.0083.954
Montana 3.7383.8073.9084.188
North Carolina 3.8773.9944.1174.071
North Dakota 3.9663.9524.1244.160
Nebraska 3.9793.9044.1064.078
New Hampshire 3.9394.0594.1704.106
New Jersey 3.8954.0184.1394.057
New Mexico 3.8933.9434.0324.191
Nevada 3.9294.0394.1354.193
New York 4.1734.3074.4214.425
Oklahoma 3.8423.9214.0273.941
Oregon 3.9714.0754.1834.312
Pennsylvania 3.9934.1034.2544.275
Rhode Island 4.0704.1924.3074.212
South Carolina 3.7553.8673.9903.939
South Dakota 3.9333.8664.0394.112
Tennessee 3.7923.9084.0333.982
Texas 3.8884.0244.1413.988
Utah 3.7423.8473.9394.156
Virginia 3.9024.0654.1914.033
Vermont 3.9624.0834.1814.254
Washington 4.0364.1554.2574.392
Wisconsin 4.0574.1494.2764.157
West Virginia 4.1174.2314.3424.209
Wyoming 3.6553.7393.8504.134

Source: AAA's Fuel Gauge Report

More on MSN Money:


May 12, 2011 2:17PM

I thought the boogeyman was Speculators.

What happened to that theory MSN?


May 12, 2011 2:35PM
They are not going to be reaping the profits they think they can if they continue. I have stopped driving to work and if I need to go somewhere I take my motorcycle. I haven't filled the tank of my car for over a month and a half. My motorcycle I haven't had to fill in about a month either.  When I was driving to I had to fill up the tank once a week. Now I may use my car once a week to get groceries that I cannot carry on the bike. In 2006 I had an Avalanche and when prices spiked they way they did I got rid of it and got a HHR which gets 30 mpg. I was tempted to buy something bigger, but with the way the big oil companies are now, I just don't have the heart to give anymore of my hard earned money that I can to fatten their wallets. I wish we could have public hangings for all of the crooks involved with this.
May 12, 2011 3:53PM
 In 2008 the price of a barrell was $150 dollars, and gas was less expensive than today. Now it is under $98 dollars a barrell and it is over $4.00 explain this. It seems to me that 2008 was a trial balloon to see how much the consumer could bare. They found that $4.00 was a magic number to fleece the public. There is nothing that we can do about it. They literally have us over a barrell.
May 12, 2011 4:07PM

Joe - you are incorrect.

The price at the pump was higher in 2008 than it is now.

It didn't hit $150.

But it only approached that number for a short while. These are futures contracts. By the time the refiners got the expensive oil, and then refined it, the economy had already tanked and demand was gone.

Gasoline, unlike oil, has a very limited shelf life. You can't just hold it and wait for the price to go up. No one mentions how much money they lost on selling gasoline at a loss when the demand went down.

May 12, 2011 3:22PM
I'm sure there is collusion between the traders, speculators, and the oil companies to drive up prices. I'm sure the big oil companies have bought off the traders and speculators to get their price for their oil and generate those giant profits. I'm sure our government will not find anything if they investigate to suggest this. They are all on the take from the big oil companies as well. If anybody thinks otherwise , they must be wearing rose colored glasses.
May 12, 2011 4:04PM
BP= British Petrolium, where do you think the Queen of England gets alot of her $$$$ from.

Everybody needs to stay the course and cut and consume less. Keep pushing alternative in hybrid and electric.Buy only high mileage cars, those that can. The more the consumer uses the higher they'll take it. Its not Supply and Demand anymore with realtime quotes and stock manipulation/speculation.

Best way to wage war on the  prices is to use less, period. Show them they need your business as much as you need their gas.

May 12, 2011 4:05PM
if it isn't one excuse they will find another until the government finally admits to them selves they are screwing the people of america.
May 12, 2011 3:25PM
Time to stop the speculation..this is what is driving the price of crude.
May 12, 2011 5:06PM

Joe - I wish I had some magic power to change the laws of economics so that gasoline were free for everyone.

It just doesn't work that way.

It's like the people who say: "They charge too much for gasoline - tax them more".

Has that ever worked for any product?

Tax it higher and expect the price to come down?


If that is our level of economic understanding, we are in deeper trouble than I thought.

May 12, 2011 7:29PM
 Lazy article with no insight or analysis.  Pretty much stated the obvious, gas prices are up and so are oil company profits.  
May 12, 2011 4:16PM
I would love a 30-70% pay raise  in a years time, maybe I could afford to buy gas! Not only is big oil toying with us, they're also toying with Detroit and the government. They're all in bed together.  I hope something substantial comes out of the Capital Hill  Hoo-Ha on big oil and their exorbitance and the tax breaks they receive.  It's time for some regulation.
May 12, 2011 3:27PM

We get the majority of our oil from Canada.

All the Quantitative easing (thanks Fed) and deficit spending (thanks Obama) has dumped an additional $5 trillion dollars into the world out of thin air.

That dilluted our dollar - making every commodity go up in price (US Dollar price).

So how do you blame oil companies for lead, silver, copper and aluminum going up? How do you blame them for wheat, rice and cotton going up?

Face it, they don't have a magic pricing gun - they don't set world prices on every commodity - they have to pay wore dollars for the oil because our dollars are worth less now.

May 12, 2011 4:11PM

The CEO of one of the biggest and most vital companies in the world makes only $29 million a year?

And you are complaining?

That's just barely more than many athletes make.

Thank goodness our top businessmen make more than people who play games for a living.


May 12, 2011 3:31PM

Speculators are losing their shirts on this oil price drop - so your conspiracy theory is that they are deliberately losing money?

Man, you really don't know any speculators - they hate losing money!


Oh, did you ever speculate on a stock price? I bet you didn't want the price to go down, right?

Funny, when a stock price goes up because people speculate on that, we never hear:

"Those darn speculators are driving the stock price up so the little guy can't afford to buy any shares."

May 12, 2011 4:29PM


Your right it approached $150($145 I think is the right number).  But the fact remains is that they can dictate the price that the market will bare. Right now $4.00 is that magic number.Wth no viable competition for vehicle energy there is nothing I can do other than not drive. So therefore I am correct in saying that they have us over a barrell.

May 26, 2011 7:47AM

Let's see........oil companies reaping enrmous profits quarter after quarter while the economy is still tanked and record numbers of people still out of work.

I can just hear the oil companies saying " sucks to be you "

May 13, 2011 12:05PM
I agree with Joe, we are paying more now then in 2008 when oil was $147.00 a barrel.
When a barrel of oil goes up 2or3 dollars in a day the next day gas goes up .20 a gallon.
Oil dropped about $15.00 a barrel last week and we are at the same price $4.059 a gallon.
A big rip off by the oil company's.


Is Big Oil toying with us? Yes they are. AOL had an article which states, “BP, Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips made $34 billion in profits in the first three months of 2011, up 42 percent from a year ago. That's about $110 for every man, woman, and child in the United States in just three months. Reuters states that “the average family spends $3,235 and year, based on an annual pump price of $3.61 a gallon” which equals 224 gallons of gasoline per quarter. Thus Big Oil is making $440 for an average family of four that uses 224 gallons of gasoline. This equals $1.96, per gallon in profit per gallon of gasoline. So, are they toying with us? 

May 12, 2011 3:26PM
BP is in talks with The Real South to acquire the BPCares domains. Sources indicate that the OIL GIANT will use this unique PR opportunity to show that they really care about the suffering of the tornado victims. By using the domains from, BP is also projecting that they are part of the South. The domains that BP is asking the owner of the domains to acquire are as follows: The Real South website is owned and operated by Joseph Rollins and he can be contacted at​m. Please let Mr Rollins know if you think BP should be able to buy ALL of the BPCares domains from The Real South or Mr Rollins should partner with a different organization to promote a eco-friendly society.
May 26, 2011 11:35AM
This article is set up to misinform the public. Big Oil is not the culprit but are the beneficiaries of Wall Street speculators who are reaping enormous profits by driving the price of oil up and then selling short. Not only is Wall Street killing us at the pump they are also getting small investors to put there money into oil commodities for the long term. When they sell short the small investor who doesn't know when Wall Street is going to remove its money is sitting on oil he bought with no chance of it going up again. These same Wall Street investment houses are the ones Obama bailed out at nearly a trillion dollars at the beginning of his term and the public is paying for it.
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