Refining helps BP and Total weather oil price storm

Tue Apr 28, 2015 5:50am EDT
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By Ron Bousso and Michel Rose

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - BP and Total reported higher than expected profits on Tuesday thanks to steep increases in profits from refining, showing the resilience of global oil firms in the face of slumping oil prices.

Large oil companies have closed down dozens of refineries in the past few years due to over capacity and because refining, or downstream in industry jargon, has been long seen as a drag on earnings compared to more profitable oil and gas production.

But a slump in oil prices, benchmark Brent prices almost halved to $55 a barrel in the first quarter of 2015 from a year ago, meant refineries could process much cheaper crude and generate higher profits on fuels such as diesel or gasoline.

As a result, BP's underlying pre-tax replacement cost profit from downstream businesses in the first quarter of 2015 more than doubled to $2.2 billion (1 billion pounds). At the same time, pre-tax profits from oil and gas production, or upstream, collapsed to $0.6 billion from $4.4 billion a year earlier.

At Europe's largest refiner Total, adjusted net operating income from refining and chemicals more than tripled from the first quarter last year to $1.1 billion, almost matching contributions from upstream of $1.36 billion, down 56 percent.

"Majors with high downstream exposure such as Royal Dutch Shell, Total or ExxonMobil should benefit from the strong global refining environment, which BP expects to last into the second quarter," analysts from Edison Investment Research said in a note.

Weaker refining margins so far in the second quarter as a result of higher crude oil prices mean next quarter's results might not benefit so much from downstream, analysts said.

BP's overall profit fell 20 percent from last year to $2.58 billion and Total's was down 22 percent at $2.60 billion, but in both cases their strong refining performances meant the results beat analysts' expectations.   Continued...

Signage for a BP petrol station is pictured in London July 29, 2014.    REUTERS/Luke MacGregor