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In Ten Years: Exxon Mobil


The future runs on hydrogen, bailout money.

10 Companies in 10 Years Exxon Mobil (XOM) soon tired of massive profits.

Profits grew to a record $40.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008, up from a previous high of $10.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2006.

But producing gloppy, stinky crude oil in regions of the world where there's not so much as a Starbucks is hard work. And after an epiphany in 2010, Exxon decided it had had enough.

Luckily, the company's corpulent bigwigs avoided the ethanol boondoggle. But they learned a valuable lesson: There's no need to struggle for market share and profits when Uncle Sam can mandate them.

Even the semi-conscious know that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the fuel releases when burned - but Uncle Sam's decision to mandate its use as a gasoline additive created an instant market for the silly stuff, and drove corn prices through the roof.

When the price of corn flakes climbed beyond the reach of average American families, Congress, after lengthy hearings, decided it was time to do something. No one on Capitol Hill knew exactly what, but all agreed it would cost lots of money.

Luckily for history, Exxon waited in the wings with its Hydrogen Initiative.

The company hit all the right notes in announcing that it would move into a bright, sunny, hydrogen-powered future: Building a fossil-fuel-free world for the children whose bones and potential otherwise would be brittle and twisted.

The Hydrogen Initiative required massive research. Good - Uncle Sam is in favor of research, and lots of it.

However, there were a few bumps on the road to nirvana. With Exxon out of the oil business, gasoline supplies fell and the price at the pump went nuts. But drivers were happy to dig deeper into their pockets for a good cause.

Then there was the cost of building the new hydrogen distribution system, including conveniently located filling stations. Fortuitously, Exxon had announced plans in 2008 to sell about 2200 company-owned gas stations, dumping the dinosaurs on legions of small businessmen. The company was proud, and more than a little pleased, to leave construction of hydrogen-filling stations costing an estimated $1.5 million each to the sages in Congress.

Oops - hydrogen is a highly flammable gas that reacts with oxygen in a flash if exposed to a spark. This wasn't an insurmountable problem, because Congress shielded Exxon from all liability.

Then some pain-in-the-butt reporter wrote a scurrilous story noting that the transition to hydrogen will take decades, and any reduction in oil imports or carbon dioxide emissions will be minuscule for about 25 years.

But none of these inconvenient truths bothered Exxon Mobil, because it had the full backing of the federal government. In any case, the Hydrogen Initiative is about process - not results.
The US auto industry, socialized in early 2009, had long produced nothing but hydrogen-powered cars under strict guidelines promulgated by Congress. It was the right thing to do, but no one could drive the new cars because the fuel distribution problem hadn't been worked out. Sales plunged. Detroit was in chaos. But the hydrogen cars gleamed on showroom floors across the nation.

No problem - Congress just wrote another check on the taxpayers' account. Meanwhile, all the right people loved Exxon Mobil because the company was no longer a polluter. Only trolls and troglodytes mentioned the Exxon Valdez and that nasty oil spill in Alaska in 1989.

The company's top officers patted themselves on the back for perfecting the art of producing nothing at great expense to others and praising themselves for it, just like Congress.

Headlines in major newspapers no longer fretted about the company's "obscene profits," but instead proclaimed, Exxon Mobil Loves Kittens, Abhors Evil.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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