U.S. oil producers profiting from sky-high prices are doling out billions to shareholders and building cash reserves, a strategy irking lawmakers and voters struggling with record fuel prices while winning over Wall Street.
Soaring fuel prices have boosted inflation to a 40-year record and are expected to drive up U.S. gasoline by more than a dollar to $6 a gallon by August. That prospect has some officials arguing the industry’s focus on returns is benefiting a few at the expense of consumers.
The tradeoff between rising payouts for just a single quarter and more spending on production has deprived the market of nearly half a million barrels of new oil daily, based on Reuters’ estimates of potential output if half of existing investor payouts flowed to new oil and gas drilling.
Earnings from major U.S. shale, which accounts for two-thirds of U.S. oil output, could hit $90 billion this year, up from $37 billion in 2021, according to consultancy BTU Analytics, a FactSet Company. Its estimate covers only 32 publicly traded oil and gas producers.
Executives are facing calls in Washington for windfall levies, which could cut into energy profits. A group of more than 30 lawmakers recently urged a Congressional vote on a new oil tax.
US oil to drop into $113.81-$115.86 range
U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday slammed oil companies, saying they are intentionally holding off drilling more to pump up oil and share prices.
“They’re buying back their own stock, which should be taxed, quite frankly,” Biden said.
Executives and investors have argued that fuel prices are set by the market and retailers, not producers. Materials and labor shortages have limited how fast they can ramp up output, and to spend a lot more on new drilling would erode capital efficiency and lead investors to exit.
Though analysts and oil executives do not expect a windfall tax to pass here, Britain recently imposed a 25% oil profit tax to offset consumer energy bills, giving hope to some U.S. lawmakers proposing the tax. And resistance to the tax may shrink as fuel prices soar and corporate earnings follow.
“If the conservative government in the U.K. can support a windfall tax, we should be able to pass” a U.S. equivalent, said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, and a co-sponsor of the tax proposal.
The goal is to raise $45 billion a year with proceeds funding payments to consumers.