... Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > All Fizzle, No Sizzle at Big Oil Hearing

It was Wednesday, November 10th and the Senators had the five bosses of the largest oil conglomerates in the world facing them and the media in a large hearing room. Millions of Americans are indignant over gouging gasoline and natural gas prices and want action.

So what did the two Senate Committees do? They blew it.

As Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post, “instead of calling oil executives on the carpet yesterday, senators gave them the red-carpet treatment.” Not quite. Senator Barbara Boxer, among a few, gave the oil tycoons a hard time. But generally, by the end of the hearing, none of the executives broke a sweat.

There was at least a high expectation for some tough rhetoric and demands for information, though nobody thought there would be any action whether for an excess profits tax, tougher anti-gouging legislation or antitrust crackdowns. But surely some table thumping. After all, it was the people-frightened Republicans who called the hearing to expose, in their majority leader, Senator Bill Frist (R-TN)’s words “those who abuse the free-enterprise system to advantage themselves and their businesses at the expense of all Americans.”

Instead, what the public saw was the astonishing workings of corporate power, ideology and campaign money on Capitol Hill. Senators, like Mary Landrieu (D-LA), were tossing soft questions and deep praise on the oil moguls, after receiving big time campaign money from their oil and gas paymasters. Landrieu took $249,155 over the past five years.

Observing the moguls, one got no sign that any of them were at all worried about the hearing. Many of the Senators were marinated in oil. The rest were frustrated or not courageous enough to come adequately prepared to take apart the all-purpose response that these oil companies were merely responding to the global marketplace. It is always the impersonal market, the all-encompassing ideology that leaves these oil giants powerless — just so many profit-gushing buoys on the ocean of market determinism.
When Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) wanted the moguls to be sworn in at the onset of the hearing (an almost routine formality in many hearings), Chairman Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) repulsed the suggestion. Later he rejected Senator Barbara Boxer’s large chart showing the huge salaries and bonuses of each of the five oil executives by name, from being entered into the hearing record as irrelevant to the subject matter of the hearing.

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post was disgusted. In his column, he described Stevens as “so cloyingly deferential to his corporate witnesses one had to wonder if he was auditioning for the job of headwaiter at the grille room of the Petroleum Club in Houston.”

The testimony by the executives was so similar to one another that their words became metaphors for the structural collusiveness of this ever tighter corporate cartel. The market makes them behave as they do. They just want lower taxes, more subsidies, more freedom from environmental regulations and more access to the public lands onshore and offshore. They denied the lower taxes bit, but their lobbyists pushed through another multi-billion dollar tax break bill through Congress a few weeks earlier.

Some of the executives made the same assertion that they have reinvested the identical amount that they earned into larger facilities and exploration. Didn’t they send much of those earnings to their shareholders? No one asked this question.

Here is the game the big companies are playing. Blame the helpless gas stations if you are pushed to explain why gas prices are so high.

Never mind that ExxonMobil made 79% more profit this last quarter than a year earlier, which was also very profitable. That 79% amounted to almost $10 billion after modest taxes in just one quarter! By way of comparison, the first company to make $1 billion in one quarter was AT&T twenty years ago.

They had to admit that refinery capacity was tight but refused to take responsibility for the industry shutting down half of the refineries in the U.S. since 1980. The oil companies have long played this game of raising prices by tightening refinery capacity or shipping refined products to other countries.

Given the internal industry documents showing this strategy, one would have thought some Senators would have probed more. But then oil Senator, Ted Stevens, held each Senator to five minutes and refused to have a multi-day hearing examination as Senators use to do back in the Sixties and Seventies. After all, tens of billions of dollars out of the family budgets could have justified a lengthier investigative hearing.

There was little mention of the oil companies taking out useless newspaper ads urging consumers to conserve, while having avoided over the years pressuring the auto and appliance industries to sell more consumers energy efficient products. But then, the oil and gas companies would sell less of their fuel, wouldn’t they?

Meanwhile, ex oil men, Bush and Cheney, continue to push for lower taxes on corporations and their affluent executives, while pressing for large cuts in programs benefiting the middle class and the poor. Bush is pushing to liquidate AMTRAK and replace it with pieces of private companies. Last week, AMTRAK’s Board, picked by Bush, fired AMTRAK’s competent CEO, David Gunn who opposed scuttling a passenger railroad system — crucial to energy conservation and national security — that is starved for capital funds while the airlines and auto companies benefit from huge taxpayer subsidies for airports and highways.

The Post’s Pearlstein titled his column, “Oil’s Bigwigs Enjoy a Rigged Market.” It is more than that. The antitrust laws no longer stop mergers of the big companies. The big oil companies have learned to profit from the overseas producers’ oil cartel. And the Mercantile Exchange in New York daily turns oil into a speculative commodity to further enhance the dominant rule of Big Oil.

As for ExxonMobil and their brethren paying some of these rigged profits into a fund to help poor families pay their fuel bills this winter, forget it. Not a single Senator pressed them each for answers. Corporate greed has reached new depths, because our indentured government has left the American people defenseless.