The oil giant barely missed a record for full-year earnings. It earned $44.88 billion in 2012, about $340 million shy of its 2008 mark of $45.22 billion, an all-time high for a publicly traded company.
Exxon still makes most of its money by producing oil and gas, but that end of the business was less profitable than a year ago because of lower prices and production. The company made up the difference in the refining business.
The nation's biggest oil company said Friday that net income equaled $2.20 per share, compared with $9.4 billion, or $1.97 per share, a year earlier. But revenue fell 5 percent to $115.17 billion, a drop of $6.44 billion.
Analysts surveyed by FactSet expected profit of $1.99 per share on revenue of $115.22 billion.
Profit from exploration and production of oil and gas fell 12 percent but still totaled $7.76 billion, more than three-fourths of Exxon's income for the quarter. Production fell 5 percent, oil prices dipped, and the company took in less money from asset sales.
Exxon produces most of its oil outside the United States. Profit from overseas production tumbled by nearly one-fifth, but Exxon partly offset that by boosting its profit from U.S. production by more than one-third.
Outside of exploration and production, most of Exxon's other profit comes from refining and selling petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. That business did very well in the fourth quarter, earning $1.8 billion, an increase of more than $1.3 billion from a year earlier, mainly due to higher refining margins.
Other oil refiners have also reported better margins this earnings season as they switched from foreign crude to cheaper U.S. oil. On Friday, benchmark U.S. crude oil was trading at about $97 per barrel, $19 less than the same amount of Brent crude, the measuring stick for international sources of oil.
At Exxon's U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, "We have more than tripled the processing of (cheaper) North American crude over the last couple of years," the company's vice president of investor relations, David Rosenthal, told analysts on a conference call. He declined to give precise figures or percentages.
Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil said it spent $5 billion during the quarter buying back its own shares and plans to spend another $5 billion on buybacks in the first three months of 2013.
Exxon shares rose 7 cents to close at $90.04 Friday. They gained 4 percent in January.
Chevron Corp., the No. 2 U.S. oil company, reported that fourth-quarter net income rose 41 percent to $7.23 billion. That result was helped by a gain of $1.4 billion related to an exchange of assets in Australia.