Exxon Mobil, for example, reported a 10% drop in profits in the third quarter, and BP's fell even more sharply. Profits also fell at Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Eni. They rose at Total and Royal Dutch Shell—but only thanks to exchange-rate fluctuations and one-off asset sales. Analysts at Citigroup calculate that, measured in dollars, the biggest oil firms' earnings fell by 15% on average.
To be fair, the oil price has surged most dramatically since the end of September, although it was also buoyant in the third quarter. The majors' poor showing also reflects lower profits from refining, as the difference in price between petrol and crude oil has fallen from the exceptionally high levels of recent months.
But the fact remains that oil giants are struggling to pump more oil and gas. In part, this is due to a quirk of the rules that oblige Western oil firms to share the crude they produce with state-owned oil firms in many countries. The contracts in question often stipulate that as the price goes up, the volume of oil the foreigners receive decreases. Worse, several countries are changing contracts or tax rules in ways that will further erode the Western oil firms' profits—and in some cases are throwing them out altogether.
Rising costs are also a problem. Exxon, which is known for its stringent financial discipline, saw costs rise almost twice as fast as revenue in the third quarter. The shortage of labour and equipment that is feeding this inflation is also causing delays to new projects. And there are not enough new projects in the pipeline. The International Energy Agency, an energy watchdog for rich countries, reckons that the expansion plans of the big Western and state-owned oil firms will leave the world 12.5m barrels per day short of requirements in 2015.
Despite this looming deficit and the glaring price signal, all the big companies except Total produced less oil and gas in the third quarter than they did in the same period last year. According to Citigroup, the average decline in overall output was 3.3%. If the relatively steady supply of natural gas is stripped out, the numbers look even worse: oil production fell by 9% on average. No matter how high the price goes, the oil majors cannot make a profit from oil they do not produce.