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Fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP are raking in massive profits, and this could be just the beginning

May 5, 2022, 7:33 PM UTC

Oil prices have been soaring this year, as Western sanctions hit the Russian economy hard, disrupting the global oil supply from one of the world’s largest producers. But while high gasoline prices at the pump make life difficult for consumers, fossil fuel companies are making a killing.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine over two months ago, Brent crude, an international benchmark for oil pricing, has surged past $100 a barrel, the highest oil has sold for since 2012.

According to the latest round of quarterly reports from the world’s largest oil and gas companies, the fossil fuel industry has been benefiting massively from this surge. Demand for energy this year has soared as economies rebound from historically low demand during the pandemic, and coupled with a constrained supply from Russia, one of the world’s largest fuel exporters, the rest of 2022 could be just as profitable for fossil fuel companies.

Oil companies posting big profits 

The COVID pandemic hit the oil industry hard as global industry came to a standstill and the need for fuel collapsed. But oil demand had begun to steadily rebound in 2022. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, subsequent sanctions on Russia and the exit of Western oil and gas companies from the country sent prices soaring, and fossil fuel companies are reaping the rewards.

British petroleum company Shell announced their quarterly profits on Thursday, posting a record $9.1 billion in earnings. That’s compared to $6.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021. 

Although Shell posted the highest profits, other major oil companies also announced major gains. 

BP announced it hit $6.2 billion in first quarter earnings, up from the $4.1 billion reported last quarter. French oil major TotalEnergies also reported a $9 billion profit in the first quarter, up 32% from the last quarter of 2021. U.S.-based Chevron reported $6.3 billion in earnings, up from $5.1 billion last quarter.

The windfall comes despite many oil majors making the call to end most investment projects and relationships in Russia this year in the wake of the invasion. Shell, BP, Halliburton, and ExxonMobil have all suspended their operations in Russia to comply with Western sanctions, but the withdrawal appears to have done little damage to these companies’ earnings.

Oil remains highly volatile, with factors other than sanctions and the Ukraine War affecting the commodity, but analysts still believe that prices this year will stay high, and major oil companies are likely to continue bringing in high profits as energy costs around the world soar.

A strong year ahead

A number of factors have collided in the early months of 2022 to send oil prices swinging wildly.

Prices first went over $100 a barrel at the end of February when Russia invaded Ukraine and continued rising for several weeks, nearly topping $140 a barrel in March.

Prices have since been in a constant state of volatility, dropping below $100 later in March of this year, when demand for oil dropped in China, the world’s largest crude importer, in response to a resurgent COVID-19 wave. But prices rebounded quickly, and did so again in April after another wave of city-wide lockdowns in China impacted demand.

The price swings have led some analysts to revise their earlier worst-case scenario predictions of $200 oil barrels this year, but that doesn’t mean that the good times are ending for the world’s largest fossil fuel companies.

While slower demand in China will continue to be important for oil prices, demand in the rest of the world is continuing to surge, as countries move past pandemic-era restrictions and industries such as travel reopen.

“Except for China, which is still imposing a zero-Covid policy, the economy reopening worldwide has been ongoing for some time,” oil analyst Lukman Leong recently told trading platform Capital.com on Wednesday. ​​“If there are no more shocking factors and [the Russia–Ukraine] conflict does not worsen, ideally, oil should range from $100–$110 per barrel this year.”

While prices are likely to fluctuate, oil will likely stay around $100 a barrel for the rest of the year, according to many analysts. 

“Because of war-related trade and production disruptions, the price of Brent crude oil is expected to average $100 a barrel in 2022,” the World Bank announced in a statement on April 26 accompanying its April Commodity Markets Outlook report.

That range would still be the highest oil has been since 2012, the last time fossil fuel companies reported such high profits. And while oil prices should stay high, major oil companies are selling another highly-valuable commodity this year: natural gas.

Demand is spiking for natural gas, especially for its liquid form (LNG), which can be frozen and shipped worldwide without the need for pipelines, as countries scramble to replace missing Russian gas imports. And the same companies that have been profiting off of high oil prices could soon begin profiting from the LNG boom.

Shell is the world’s largest LNG trader, operating over 40 carriers around the world. Chevron is another major LNG player, managing nearly 150 terminals around the world to either freeze natural gas or regasify LNG. Chevron also has large stakes in some of the biggest LNG development plans in the world, such as the Gorgon Project in Australia.

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