Thursday, November 10, 2005

Top oil company executives yesterday told Congress that their companies have little effect on the gas prices that consumers pay and said a new tax on their record-breaking profits would backfire by cutting domestic production.

Under grilling at a joint hearing of the Senate commerce and energy committees, the executives said that crude oil prices are set in a global marketplace over which they don’t have control and that the current price spike is part of the natural business cycle.

“People need to realize we are in a commodity business,” said Exxon Mobil Chairman Lee Raymond. “There are ups and downs in the commodity business, and our job is to manage through the ups and downs with a view towards the long term, which is what we try and do.”

The hearing was supposed to be a chance to get the executives — the chiefs of Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP America and Shell Oil, in addition to Mr. Raymond — to explain why gasoline, natural gas and home heating oil prices are so high and whether the companies are engaged in price gouging.

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee Republican who told the panels to hold the hearing, said the executives didn’t justify high prices, nor did they answer “whether their companies’ profit margins are appropriate given the hardships energy consumers are facing and will continue to face this winter.”

He also said the Senate’s investigative subcommittee will continue to look into whether there was price gouging.

Republicans have become worried about the political fallout from high gas prices, which they said is one of the top issues they are asked about when they meet constituents.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, said that senators just don’t have answers to give those constituents and that the oil companies didn’t do much to clear things up.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the first Republican leader to call on oil companies to reinvest profits, met with Mr. Raymond. Afterward, he told reporters that he challenged the Exxon chief to boost production.

Mr. Hastert said the recent drop in prices suggests that the increases in September were a matter of supply and demand, rather than gouging, but said prices need to come down more.

“It’s not good enough. We need to build some resources here so we can be more dependent on domestic and less dependent on foreign oil,” he said.

The Senate hearing was not an easy time for the executives. They had their salaries, annual bonuses and other compensation read to them by Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Sen. Ron Wyden forced them to admit that their companies will not be helped by the $2.6 billion in tax breaks included in the recently passed energy bill.

“Working people struggle with high gas prices, and your sacrifice, gentlemen, appears to be nothing,” Mrs. Boxer, California Democrat, said as she challenged them to donate from their own personal funds to help pay for low-income heating assistance.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, threatened to move to withdraw some incentives Congress passed to aid the companies unless they finish a natural gas pipeline in Alaska.

There were also some early fireworks over Democrats’ demand that the witnesses be sworn in — something Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, rejected. He said there are already penalties for presenting false information to Congress without the need to be officially sworn in.

But members of both parties said the hearings didn’t produce much.

“I think it was helpful to have the CEOs come to Capitol Hill and be required to answer questions. I don’t think we learned much new,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and one of those calling for a windfall profits tax on oil company profits.

He and other senators said that the five minutes each senator had for questions was too short to develop a line of inquiry and that they doubted the company executives were swayed.

“I think what we came away with — I think they feel relatively immune from criticism,” said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat.

Democrats said the executives’ response means it’s time to move ahead on their calls for a profits tax, and Mr. Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said he plans to offer an amendment in the Finance Committee today to eliminate the refinery incentives he grilled the executives over.

Defenders of the tax break say it is designed more to help small drillers than large corporations such as Exxon Mobil.

But the executives said such a move would backfire and lead to less U.S. production — something some Republican senators said was proven by the results of a windfall profits tax in the early 1980s.

“The facts are when it was tried in the past, it resulted in an increase in dependence on imported oil and an increase in prices for consumers,” said Sen. John E. Sununu, New Hampshire Republican.

The Bush administration yesterday echoed Mr. Hastert’s call that the oil companies should reinvest their profits.

“There is much more that energy companies can be doing, and they should be doing,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

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