Oil industry profits expected lowest in years

The nation’s biggest oil companies certainly won’t need a bailout from the federal government, but they won’t have to defend staggering profits anytime soon either.

When oil producers, service companies and other oil-sector outfits begin reporting first-quarter earnings next week, the results are expected to be the lowest in several years, a decade perhaps.A year ago, crude prices were in the triple digits on their way to a peak near $150 a barrel in July. They spent the latter part of 2008 tumbling and today hover around $50 a barrel. Natural gas prices have fallen sharply too as the world grapples with a severe recession that’s crushed energy consumption.A benefit for consumers has been lower gasoline and other fuel bills. On average, pump prices are roughly 40 percent lower than they were a year ago, when gasoline topped $4 a gallon.More than once last year, executives from Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and the other oil majors were pressed by members of Congress to explain soaring fuel prices amid huge profits. Don’t expect similar hearings in 2009.

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