NEW YORK — ExxonMobil said Thursday its profit soared 55 percent in the third quarter, driven in part by higher energy prices and rising oil production in Qatar.

The US energy giant reported net earnings of $7.35 billion, a better- than-expected advance from the $4.73 billion posted in the 2009 third quarter.

Earnings per share of $1.44 in the July-September period topped the consensus forecast of $1.39.

Revenue surged 16 percent to $95.29 billion.

ExxonMobil, the world's largest non-state oil company, said the strong performance was due to higher crude oil and natural gas prices, improved refining margins, and solid chemical results.

"Despite continuing economic uncertainty, we had strong quarterly results and continued to advance our robust investment opportunities," ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

The Irving, Texas-based company said it had returned more than five billion dollars to shareholders in the third quarter, through dividends and share purchases.

The company announced Tuesday it would pay a fourth-quarter dividend of 44 cents, the same amount paid in the third quarter.

Oil and gas production rose 20 percent from the third quarter of 2009, driven in part by increased production from projects in Qatar.

Capital and exploration spending increased 35 percent, to $8.8 billion.

ExxonMobil reported nine-month earnings, excluding special items, were $21.21 billion, a 59 percent increase from the same period in 2009.

In 2009 it posted the largest profit of any publicly listed company worldwide: $40.6 billion.