by Mark Silva
With gasoline approaching $4 per gallon, the top-five oil executives have dates with a congressional committee today.
"These companies are defending billions of federal subsidies ... while reaping over a hundred billion dollars in profits in just the last year alone," complains Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.)
Top executives of Exxon Mobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., BP America Inc., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips – which earned a combined $123 billion last year – are set to testify before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
Markey, chairman, wants to ask why, with such profits, the oil industry is fighting to keep $18 billion in tax breaks, stretched over 10 years. Executives will be asked to explain how they can get energy prices down in the short run and "in the long run what are they going to do to shift the focus to a renewable energy agenda."
"We have to move beyond this oil economy," Markey said today on CBS News' The Early Show. "We have to move to a renewable energy economy. ... We can never get out of this trap as long as the oil companies want to hold us hostage to this old agenda."
The House last year and again on Feb. 27 approved legislation to end tax breaks for the oil giants, while using the revenue to support wind, solar and other renewable fuels and incentives for energy conservation. The measure has not passed the Senate.
The oil industry has argued that the tax breaks assure continuing investment in exploration, production and refinery expansions.
President Bush has promised to veto any bill eliminating the exemptions, arguing that the oil companies should not be singled out.
The threat of $4-a-gallon gasoline, perhaps this summer, and oil selling at over $100 per barrel, is making political waves, even as lawmakers conced there is little that Congress can do to bring prices down.
Some have called on the administration to release oil from the government's emergency reserve to put more supply on the market. The White House rejects use of the oil in the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve to influence prices.
Congressional hearings are nothing new.
In May 2006, the top executives of the same companies appearing today were grilled on spending and investment priorities in light of soaring oil prices.
The cost of a barrel of oil then: $75.
In February, at a press conference, the president was asked about his advice for the average American “facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gasoline….
“Wait, what did you just say?’’ Bush asked. “You're predicting $4 a gallon gasoline?
“A number of analysts are predicting…’’ the reporter replied.
“That's interesting,’’ Bush said. “I hadn't heard that.’’
The White House may be hearing about it this summer. And voters may be hearing about it on the campaign trail.
The Associated Press contributed to this report