By STEVE QUINN
The Associated Press
DALLAS -- After recording the second-largest quarterly profit ever for a publicly traded company Thursday -- $10.49 billion from July to September -- Exxon Mobil Corp. is poised to deliver an even better performance through the remainder of this year.
The only caveat: The recent slide in energy prices must cease.
"The thing you've got to understand is this, everything that could work for Exxon this quarter did: high oil prices, lower down time and growth in production," said Fadel Gheit, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. "I would not rule out anything right now."
Another major international oil company, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, said Thursday that its third-quarter profit fell 34 percent to $5.94 billion even as revenue rose 10 percent to $84.3 billion. But the Anglo-Dutch company's operating profit rose as higher oil prices outweighed worsening refining margins.
Several years of high crude-oil prices have fueled record profits for the petroleum industry, even as they triggered complaints from consumers and Congress as gasoline pump prices surpassed $3 a gallon during the past two summers.
Although crude oil prices began to decline toward the end of the third quarter, the average market price for crude held at around $70 a barrel in the period after peaking above $78 per barrel in July. Oil futures prices have recently traded near $61 a barrel, and gasoline prices have dropped to an average of about $2.43 a gallon.
The largest quarterly performance already belongs Exxon Mobil Corp.'s $10.71 billion profit in the fourth quarter of 2005.
The world's biggest publicly traded oil company may come close to matching or even beating that number next quarter, said Howard Silverblatt, Standard & Poor's senior index analyst. "Then in all likelihood they will be at that $40 billion mark for the year."
That would put the company on track for the highest annual profit ever by a U.S. company. Exxon Mobil holds that record with a 2005 profit of $36.1 billion.
But with two months left in the year, Gheit said the unpredictable drivers of the oil market -- geopolitics, OPEC and the weather -- still make forecasting a crude science.
For the last year, Exxon's profits have attracted the ire of lawmakers, but with gas prices down, Big Oil has taken a back seat to problems in Iraq and a troubled housing market.
Still, Exxon's Vice President of Public Affairs Kenneth Cohen concedes there could still be a public relations backlash from Thursday's announcement.
"The price people are paying at the pump is a reflection of supply and demand," Cohen said. "We are doing everything we can to bring more product on the market."
Cohen said about two-thirds of Exxon Mobil's profits come from oil and natural-gas production outside the U.S., with rising production in Africa, the Middle East and Russia consistently offsetting declining output in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Exxon Mobil said it pumped 7 percent more oil and natural gas than it did during the same quarter a year earlier. At the beginning of the year, many analysts had forecast a 5 percent growth.
"The real story remains underlying growth in production, which remains key to share performance," wrote Citigroup analyst Doug Leggate.
Exxon Mobil said its net income amounted to $1.77 per share for the July-September period, up from $9.92 billion, or $1.58 per share, a year ago.
The results surpassed the expectations of Wall Street analysts. On average, analysts expected the company to earn $1.59 per share in the quarter.
Revenue fell to $99.59 billion from $100.72 billion from a year ago, which saw then-record oil prices because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Still, Exxon's revenue for the three-month period was greater than the annual gross domestic product of some major oil producing nations, including the United Arab Emirates ($98.1 billion) and Kuwait ($52.76 billion), according to statistics maintained by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil saw a 13 percent earnings boost from its oil and gas drilling activities of $6.49 billion. The company also saw stronger earnings from its refining operations and gas stations, and profits at its chemicals segment more than doubled.
Exxon said the average sale price for oil around the world in the third quarter was $65.64, compared with $58.24 a year ago.
Earlier this week, ConocoPhillips reported its profit rose 2 percent to $3.88 billion in the third quarter while another major oil company, BP PLC, said its earnings fell 3.6 percent to $6.23 billion. A fifth major oil company, Chevron Corp., is expected to report its results Friday.
Five of the world's largest energy companies are expected to report combined third-quarter earnings this week of more than $30 billion though profits were weighed down by falling prices for natural gas and gasoline.
Exxon Mobil shares rose 31 cents to $71.32 in afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange after rising to a new 52-week high of $72.33 earlier in the session.