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By Shariq Khan
(Reuters) - Chevron Corp on Friday reported its highest profit in six quarters and joined an oil industry stampede to reward investors with share buybacks, as rebounding crude oil prices carried earnings and cash flow to pre-pandemic levels. Oil and gas are trading near multi-year highs as fuel consumption has thrown off pandemic losses and natural gas has soared on weather demand. OPEC's decision to carry production curbs into next year has kept oil trading above $70 per barrel.
Chevron last year slashed spending to allow profits to flow at above $50 a barrel. Lower costs and higher prices generated the highest cash flow in two years, enabling the company to pare debt and resume share repurchases, officials said. Share buybacks will resume this quarter at an annual rate of between $2 billion and $3 billion, said Chief Executive Michael Wirth in a statement, about half the annual rate it had planned. The company suspended purchases early last year as the pandemic cut oil demand.
"Our free cash flow was the highest in two years due to solid operational and financial performance and lower capital spending," Wirth said in a statement.
Oil and gas production earned $3.18 billion in the quarter ended June 30, compared with a loss of $6.09 billion in the same quarter a year earlier. The second-largest U.S. producer sold its U.S. oil for $54 a barrel last quarter, compared with $19 a year ago. Total oil and gas production rose 5% over a year ago to 3.13 million barrels per day.
Its refining operations generated an $839 million profit compared with a loss of $1.01 billion a year ago. U.S. operations accounted for the vast majority of the operating profit as Asia units suffered from weak margins. Chevron joined Royal Dutch Shell, TotalEnergies and Equinor in resuming share buybacks as a means of rewarding investors. Crude oil prices this year through June were up 57% while hard-hit refining and chemicals improved with plant utilization rates and margins mostly moving higher. It reported an adjusted profit of $3.27 billion, or $1.71 per share, compared with a loss of $2.92 billion, or $1.56 per share, the same quarter a year ago. Year-ago results included writedowns. Earnings topped Wall Street estimates of a $1.50 a profit, according to Zacks consensus of eight analysts.
Shares closed Thursday at $102.57, up 17% year to date.
(Reporting by Shariq Khan in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Gary McWilliams; editing by Richard Pullin)