HOUSTON -- Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company, said today that record crude prices helped its first-quarter profit climb 17 percent to $10.9 billion, the second-biggest U.S. quarterly corporate profit ever.
But the results still fell short of Wall Street's lofty forecasts, and Exxon shares fell more than 4 percent in early afternoon trading.
The company's refining operations limited its overall profits growth because prices for crude oil rose even faster than the increase drivers see at the gasoline pump.
Lower production to start the year hurt too.
Exxon has substantial holdings in Alaska, particularly at the huge Prudhoe Bay field, among its global investments. It is the state's No. 3 oil producer, behind Conoco Phillips and BP, and it owns a 20 percent interest in the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline.
Exxon, based in Irving, Texas, said profits for the first three months of the year came to $2.03 per share, up from $9.3 billion, or $1.62 per share, a year ago.
Analysts polled by Thomson Financial were looking for $2.13 per share.
But at $10.9 billion, the profit still ranks as the second-biggest for a U.S. company, the only larger result in a three-month period was the $11.7 billion Exxon posted in the final three months last year.
Revenue rose to $117 billion from $87.2 billion a year earlier. Analysts were looking for revenue of about $124 billion.
"In an environment of high commodity prices, Exxon Mobil's outstanding portfolio of integrated businesses performed well, allowing us to deliver record first-quarter results," Henry Hubble, the company's vice president of investor relations, said on a conference call.
Investors, however, didn't seem overly impressed as Exxon shares fell $4.19, or 4.5 percent, to $88.88. They've traded in a range of $77.55 to $95.27 in the past year.
The company, which produces 3 percent of the world's oil, said earnings at its exploration and output, or upstream, business rose 45 percent to $8.8 billion with help from higher oil and natural gas prices. Increased natural gas production was more than offset by lower crude volumes.
Overall production fell 5.6 percent from a year ago, in part from natural field declines and maintenance.
In a note to clients, Citigroup analyst Doug Leggate said Exxon's results "clearly disappointed versus expectations" but noted a "good suite of new projects" will likely keep its production stable in the future - a positive note given the challenge of finding new sources of fossil fuel.
In March, the company said it expects to invest $25 billion to $30 billion on capital and exploration projects this year, up from about $21 billion in 2007.
On the refining and marketing side, profits were off 39 percent from a year ago to nearly $1.2 billion. The company said significantly lower worldwide refining margins reduced profits by about $1 billion in the quarter. Those margins reflect the difference between the cost of crude and what the company makes on refined products such as gasoline.
Crude prices averaged nearly $100 a barrel in the first quarter, up from roughly $58 a barrel a year ago. Analysts have attributed the spike to growing global demand, speculative trading and a weak dollar, among other factors.
Crude has pushed even higher since, reaching a record $119.93 per barrel this week.
Meanwhile, gasoline prices also are reaching new highs and creating financial stress for many Americans. The national average price of a gallon of regular gas rose past $3.62 today.
Already, record crude prices have produced bountiful first-quarter profits for several other major oil companies, despite higher costs and lower results from refining.
BP and Royal Dutch Shell, Europe's two biggest oil producers, posted combined profits of nearly $17 billion earlier this week, $7.6 billion for BP, $9.1 billion for Shell. BP's profits surged 63 percent from a year ago; Shell's rose 25 percent.
Last week, Conoco reported a 16 percent rise in profits to $4.14 billion. Like BP and Shell, the third-biggest U.S. oil outfit far outpaced industry expectations.
Chevron Corp., the No. 2 U.S. oil company, is expected to continue the trend when it reports first-quarter results Friday.