Oil companies are struggling to cope with shrinking crude prices. For some like Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) that have been paying dividends for years, there is even more pressure. They have to borrow to maintain their dividend practice, but that is threatening their credit score.

In an environment of lower crude prices, oil companies are either losing money or not making enough of it to meet their needs. Some of these companies, mostly smaller ones, have had to put capital projects on hold, trim workforce and discontinue dividend payments. But their larger counterparts, such as Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell plc (ADR) (NYSE:RDS.A) and BP plc (ADR) (NYSE:BP), are going a different direction. Executives at these large oil companies have ruled out the possibility of doing away with dividends no matter how hostile the business environment becomes.

So, what are they doing?

Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), Shell, BP, Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) and other large oil companies are willing to sell assets, lay off staff and put off asset acquisitions and raise debt to fund their dividend payments. They seem to be willing to impress their investors with short-term pleasures while risking the long-term. The trouble of unlocking funds through asset sale at this point is that they can’t fetch attractive prices. As for raising more debt, there is the risk of hurting credit rating, which could make it more difficult to borrow in the future.

But these looming risks aren’t enough to deter Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) and peers from turning cash to shareholders when they should be preserving every bit of it. This year, Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron are set to distribute over $35 billion to their shareholders in the form of dividends. Some of these companies have already had their credit ratings lowered while Exxon’s current AAA rating risks a downgrade.

Why stick to dividends when things aren’t right?

Maintaining image of a prestigious company may be forcing Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) and peers to favor payouts over credit rating. Some analysts have also cited that millions of investors in these companies are retirees who depend on the dividends as they primary source income. That means that cutting dividends can cause serious life disruption for many investors, perhaps triggering massive selloffs.

In this situation, it is classical case of being between a rock and hard place of major oil companies. Not the least for Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), which has consistently sweetened its dividends and endured previous difficulties.