NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Big Oil reported big profits this week, and not by coincidence, the issue of higher crude oil prices and rising gasoline prices at the pump has become a political football ahead of the next presidential race.

In short, President Obama's approval numbers will be hard pressed to keep pace with the earnings that oil and gas companies are racking up.

ExxonMobil's ( XOM) first-quarter profit soared nearly 70%. Not far behind, Royal Dutch Shell ( RDS.A) saw profits pop by 60%.

Even oil spill punching bag BP ( BP) booked a 17% increase in earnings, while residents and businesses in the Gulf Coast complain that the oil spill claims process drags on. ConocoPhillips ( COP) profit jumped by 44%, while Chevron ( CVX) saw a profit spike of 36%.

It was last Friday that President Obama said he had directed the Justice Department to begin a sweeping investigation of fraud in the commodity trading market, specifically mentioning oil contracts.

Companies that have a business founded on a physical commodity or are reliant on a commodity use the futures markets to hedge their risk. The problem is there are two times as many speculators trading as there are commercial entities, according to University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger, who has testified on Capitol Hill about speculation in the commodities markets.

"Look at Enron. Look at Brian Hunter. These are very sophisticated surgical purchasing of long futures contracts and avoidance of position limits, and these markets are opaque and need to be investigated," Greenberger said.

Brian Hunter not a household name on the tip of your tongue. On April 21, the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) fined Brian Hunter $31 million. Hunter was the head trader at Amaranth Advisors, the hedge fund that went belly up after engaging in massive manipulation of the natural gas futures market, and the Amaranth implosion, when it was a headline event, hearkened back to the energy manipulator without equal, Enron.

Given the history of manipulation of prices in the energy market, as well as recent comments from commodity heavyweights including Goldman Sachs and Saudi Arabia that there is excessive speculation in the oil markets, President Obama would seem on the right side of justice to be rooting out any crude wrongdoing. Yet debate remains over whether President Obama's oil prices manipulation crusade is merely lip service intended to serve his re-election campaign.

To that end, we asked readers of The Street this week whether Obama's task force on oil price manipulation was for real, or really just a way to talk the angry masses down from the verge of revolt.

The angry masses seem to think that President Obama is not only trying to talk them down from their boiling point, but as usual, is talking down to them.

Roughly 85% of poll respondents said the Obama oil prices task force is just politics.

Only 15% of survey takers think Obama is serious and illegal oil trading schemes are real.

Several readers and self-appointed replacements for the Federal Reserve pointed to the dollar's weakness as the real reason why crude oil prices keep rising, notably, during the week when Fed chairman Ben Bernanke held his first press conference and delivered the verbal equivalent of burning dollar bills with a cigarette lighter. The euro reached above $1.48 on Friday, even though coming into 2011, currency experts were worried about another euro crash.

The Maryland law professor Greenberger would say expert opinion trumps the angry masses, and the dollar, and we didn't ask for party affiliation or opinion of Big Ben when posting the poll. "If Justice appears to be using their subpoena power then oil prices will drop. Traders will run scared. These guys don't want to end up in jail. It wouldn't take long to uncover and it would be a great mistake if Justice didn't take it seriously and put their shoulder to the wheel," the legal and commodity expert said.

Crude oil settled at $113.93 on Friday, and touched the $114 mark earlier in the day, higher than when the week began.

The traders aren't running scared yet.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.


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