PetroChina, China's No 1 oil company, is expected to produce the biggest corporate profit in Asia for last year, according to analysts. The consensus forecast from 20 brokerages put together by HSBC put PetroChina's earnings at 46.08 billion yuan (HK$43.17 billion), down 16.56 per cent from a year ago. This would beat HSBC Holdings' HK$42 billion. Results will be announced today. Oil prices off their 10-year highs last year weighed on PetroChina, the world's fourth-largest publicly traded oil company, which focuses on exploration and production. The average price of benchmark Brent crude oil fell to US$24.40 a barrel last year, from 2000's highs of US$29 a barrel. PetroChina's fellow oil companies - China Petroleum & Chemical and CNOOC - have reported sharply lower earnings for last year, citing lower oil prices as the culprits. Analysts expect PetroChina's net this year to plummet further when oil prices return to 1999 levels of about US$18 a barrel. Also dragging down last year's profit was flat production growth. PetroChina produced 763.7 million barrels of crude oil compared with 2000's 765.4 million barrels, according to its Web site. However, it recorded moderate growth in the sale of natural gas and in refining operations. It sold 563.3 billion cubic feet last year, up 11.5 per cent from a year ago, and refined 567.1 million barrels of crude oil, a 3.8 per cent increase over last year, the company said. HSBC, which forecasts PetroChina to earn 46.03 billion yuan, expects sales and asset turnover to dip further this year on lower oil prices and volume growth. A gradual recovery of the global economy leading to higher commodity prices could come in the second half, HSBC oil and gas analyst Gordon Kwan said. The bright spots were cost savings and product-mix improvements, which should help minimise the impact of lower oil prices, Mr Kwan said. Lifting costs - the expense of extracting oil and gas - were cut further to US$4.30 a barrel last year, an improvement from US$4.70 in 2000, and moving closer to world counterparts such as BP Amoco, whose lifting cost is about US$3.50 a barrel.