Are the oil companies making too much money? And if so, what should they or the politicians do about it?
ExxonMobil reported that it made $9.92 billion in the last quarter. It will make from $33 billion to $34 billion this year, Wall Street analysts predict. That's more than any company has ever made, more than Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Merck, McDonald's and General Motors combined. More than the budget of the National Institutes of Health.
The other big oil companies are also earning stratospheric profits. The four so-called supermajors - ExxonMobil, BP Amoco, Royal Dutch Shell and ChevronTexaco - will collectively make almost $100 billion, analysts say. But such success presents a problem, analysts say. The companies are making money far faster than they can spend it.
Countries with large untapped reserves, like Russia, may need enormous investments to bring their oil to market, but they are wary of granting Western companies too much influence. So ExxonMobil is sending cash back to shareholders as fast as it can.
The company spent $5.5 billion in the third quarter alone on share repurchases. But the company is still holding $34 billion in cash, according to Merrill Lynch.
Such large profits for a period when gasoline prices topped $3 a gallon and as high heating costs are expected for the winter, could lead to calls for a windfall profits tax, or even a rollback on prices at the pump.
On Thursday, Senator Bill Frist, the Republican leader, said the Senate should call executives of major oil companies to testify about high prices.
As long as oil prices stay high, ExxonMobil and its peers will keep making record-setting profits. And with China continuing to boom, and world oil production about as high as it can go, no one expects prices to drop much from their current $60-a-barrel level in the foreseeable future.
If anything, said Fadel Gheit, a senior energy analyst with Oppenheimer, "the fourth quarter of this year is likely to be higher than the third quarter." And analysts say profits may rise even a bit more next year.
But analysts also say the companies shouldn't be blamed for their profitability, which is largely a function of the price of crude oil.
That price is set by the worldwide interplay of supply and demand for energy, forces that even ExxonMobil and its peers cannot control, said Mr. Gheit, a senior energy analyst with Oppenheimer.
"It's like the guy who won the lottery, and now everybody hates him," Mr. Gheit said.
"Call it dumb luck, call it anything, fine," he added. "But don't accuse them of all this outrageous behavior, price gouging and collusion."