NEW YORK – Exxon earned nearly $11 billion in the first quarter, a performance likely to land it in the center of the national debate over high gasoline prices.

The world’s largest publicly traded company said Thursday that higher oil prices boosted profits 69 percent from a year ago. The result was Exxon’s best since earning a record $14.83 billion in 2008’s third quarter.

Wall Street had been expecting sharply higher earnings for oil companies. Oil prices rose 17 percent in the quarter. But huge oil profits will aggravate drivers with gasoline prices averaging $3.89 per gallon nationally. President Obama wants to cut into some of those earnings by eliminating $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies for oil companies.

Exxon is taking steps to dilute any potential furor over the results. On a company blog Wednesday, the company said that it has little control over the price of oil, which is now near $113 per barrel. It also noted that less than 3 cents of every dollar it earns comes from the sale of gasoline and diesel fuel.

That may not appease many motorists and politicians, however. The price of a gallon of gas is already above $4 in eight states and the District of Columbia. On Thursday, the Commerce Department said economic growth slowed sharply in the first quarter, partly because of high gas prices.

On the blog, Ken Cohen, Exxon Mobil Corp.’s vice president of public and government affairs, said the company was anticipating “the inevitable headlines and sound bites about high gasoline prices and what to do about them” after the earnings were reported.

Exxon’s results followed strong profit gains by other oil companies:

• Europe’s largest oil company, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, reported $8.78 billion in first-quarter profits, up 60 percent from a year ago.

• BP PLC’s quarterly earnings rose 16 percent to $7.2 billion.

• ConocoPhillips said net income grew 43 percent to $3 billion and Occidental Petroleum Corp. said earnings climbed 46 percent to $1.55 billion.

• Chevron Corp., the second-biggest U.S. oil company, is expected today to report a 25 percent increase to $5.69 billion.