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Exxon post 7 percent profit growth

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DALLAS (AP) _ Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest oil company, said Thursday that higher oil prices drove first-quarter profit up 7 percent from the prior year.

Net income rose to $8.4 billion, or $1.37 per share, in the January-March period from $7.86 billion, or $1.22 per share, a year ago. Excluding a gain on the sale of an interest in China's Sinopec, the company's year-ago profit was $7.4 billion, or $1.15 per share.

But analysts polled by Thomson Financial were looking for a higher profit of $1.47 per share for the latest quarter, and shares fell $1.55, or 2.5 percent, to $61.55 in premarket trading.

Revenue grew to $88.98 billion from $82.05 billion a year earlier. Higher crude oil and natural gas prices and improved marketing margins were partly offset by lower chemical margins.

Its worldwide production of oil equivalent in the first quarter of 2006 rose 5 percent.

The earnings report comes amid consumer outcry in the U.S. about soaring gasoline prices. The average retail price of gasoline in the U.S. is now $2.91 a gallon, or 68 cents higher than a year ago.

It also comes as Washington lawmakers are looking to appease consumers with various proposals to make big oil companies pay more taxes.

In January, Exxon posted the highest quarterly and annual profits of any U.S. company in history: $10.71 billion for the fourth quarter of 2005 and $36.13 billion for the full year.

Exxon said it invested $4.8 billion in capital and exploration projects, a 41 percent increase from 2005.

``In the first quarter of 2006, the results of our continuing long-term investment program contributed to a 5 percent increase in production,'' Exxon chief executive said in a prepared statement.

Exxon also said it returned $7 billion to shareholders through dividends of $2 billion and buying back $5 billion worth of shares.
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