Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Going after big Oil

The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming on Tuesday grilled executives of the five biggest oil companies, the ones that made a combined $123 billion last year, about high fuel prices and their profits. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is chairman of that committee. He's the one who pushed for more draconian Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards than the 35-mpg car/truck rule approved for 2020.

Let's face it, those '20 CAFE standards are probably the best automakers could have hoped for, and are not undeserved. For years, automakers made big profits on big trucks and SUVs, while fighting CAFE increases. They didn't see an end to the SUV boom, something pretty obvious to the rest of us. Yes, a higher federal gasoline tax would be more effective, but suggesting such a tax is politically unrealistic.

Big Oil has been untouched as automakers deal with the new CAFE standards, but now the mostly ineffectual Democratic Congress is feeling its oats, perhaps because in less than a year President Bush won't be around to veto removing $18 billion in tax breaks for his close friends. Markey noted that oil cost less than $20 per barrel when Bush took office. It peaked at $111 per barrel by the end of March, and "settled" at $100 today, all while we're supposed to be reaping the benefits of liberating the country with the world's second-largest known oil reserves. The average gallon of regular is about $3.30 now, and at more than $4.10 for a gallon of diesel, it's going to take quite a few years to pay off that TDI you've got your eyes on.

Big Oil, as I've long maintained, is not the car enthusiast's friend. "Our earnings, although high in absolute terms, need to be viewed in the context of the scale and cyclical, long-term nature of our industry as well as the huge investment requirements," ExxonMobil senior vice president J.S. Simon told the committee. "We depend on high earnings during the upcycle to sustain investment over the long-term, including the down cycles."

How about viewing it in the context of the Detroit Three, which lost an estimated $43 billion last year (estimated, because private Chrysler LLC does not publish financial results)?

Ranking Republican James Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, asked what would it take to lower fuel prices. "We need access to all kinds of energy supply," was BP American chairman Robert Malone's reply. He says that 85 percent of coastal waters are off-limits to drilling.

Hello? Does he not know, or doesn't he care, that this issue is about oil dependence, high prices and the environment? Imagine one of the Detroit Three suggesting we could save oil by building more cars with small, two-stroke engines.

"Why is ExxonMobil resisting the renewable revolution?" Markey asked Simon.

Simon's reply? ExxonMobil is spending about $100 million in research on climate change at Stanford University. I admit I haven't waded through Stanford U's climate change research online, yet. I wonder if any of it is kind to such alternative fuels as E85 ethanol. Most research hasn't been kind to flexfuels and biofuels - they're not sufficiently cleaner and they tend to take food out of the Third World's mouth, goes the research so far.

Big Oil will do what it can to blunt alternative fuel development. And lately, General Motors has become vocal about what oil companies are doing to keep us dependent on fossil fuels. Big Oil has no interest in alternative fuels, one executive told me, because it would threaten their business.

Obviously। ExxonMobil is the most baldfaced about this. It has no interest in producing anything but gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks. Let's hope there's something to GM's partnership with the leading edge biofuel developer, Coskata. I'd love to see ExxonMobil have to blow last year's $40 billion on a long period of down cycles.

Don't blame us, oil industry chiefs tell Congress

Updated Tue. Apr. 1 2008 9:27 PM ET

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Don't blame us, oil industry chiefs told a skeptical Congress. Top executives of the country's five biggest oil companies said Tuesday they know record fuel prices are hurting people, but they argued it's not their fault and their huge profits are in line with other industries.

Appearing before a House committee, the executives were pressed to explain why they should continue to get billions of dollars in tax breaks when they made $123 billion last year and motorists are paying record gasoline prices at the pump.

"On April Fool's Day, the biggest joke of all is being played on American families by Big Oil," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said, aiming his remarks at the five executives sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a congressional hearing room.

"Our earnings, although high in absolute terms, need to be viewed in the context of the scale and cyclical, long-term nature of our industry as well as the huge investment requirements," said J.S. Simon, senior vice president of Exxon Mobil Corp., which made a record $40 billion last year.

"We depend on high earnings during the up cycle to sustain ... investment over the long term, including the down cycles," he continued.

The up cycle has been going on too long, suggested Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. "The anger level is rising significantly."

Alluding to the fact that Congress often doesn't rate very high in opinion polls, Cleaver told the executives: "Your approval rating is lower than ours, and that means you're down low."

Several lawmakers noted the rising price of gasoline at the pump, now averaging $3.29 a gallon amid talk of $4 a gallon this summer.

"I heard what you are hearing. Americans are very worried about the rising price of energy," said John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., echoing remarks by the other four executives including representatives of BP America Inc., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips.

While Democrats hammered the executives for their profits and demanded they do more to develop alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and biofuels, Republican lawmakers called for opening more areas for drilling to boost domestic production of oil and gas.

What would bring lower prices? asked Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the committee's ranking Republican

"We need access to all kinds of energy supply," replied Robert Malone, chairman of BP America, adding that 85 percent of the country's coastal waters are off limits to drilling.

But Markey wanted to know why the companies aren't investing more in energy projects other than oil and gas -- or giving up some tax breaks so the money could be directed to promote renewable fuels and conservation and take pressure off oil and gas supplies.

"Why is Exxon Mobil resisting the renewable revolution," asked Markey, noting that the other four companies together have invested $3.5 billion in solar, wind and biodiesel projects.

Exxon is spending $100 million on research into climate change at Stanford University, replied Simon, but current alternative energy technologies "just do not have an appreciable impact" in addressing "the challenge we're trying to meet."

The appearance Tuesday before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was not the first time that oil executives had faced the harsh words of a lawmakers frustrated over their inability to do anything about soaring oil and gasoline costs.

In November 2005, executives of the same companies sought to explain high energy costs at a Senate hearing at which Hofmeister emphasized the cyclical nature of his industry. "What goes up almost always comes down," he told the senators on a day when oil cost $60 a barrel.

About six months later, the executives were grilled again on Capitol Hill when a barrel of oil cost $75. As the three-hour House hearing came to a close Tuesday, the price of oil settled at just over $100 a barrel on the New York exchange.

"We face a new reality, volatility, high prices, greater competition for resources," said Peter Robertson, vice president of Chevron Corp., adding that he understands that "Americans see the pain" of $100-a-barrel oil.

Markey challenged the executives to pledge to invest 10 percent of their profits to develop renewable energy and give up $18 billion in tax breaks over 10 years so money could be funneled to support other energy and conservation.

They responded that their companies already are spending on alternative energy projects and argued that new taxes would dampen investment and could lead to even higher prices.

"Imposing punitive taxes on American energy companies, which already pay record taxes, will discourage the sustained investment needed to continue safeguarding U.S. energy security," said Simon. He said over the past five years Exxon Mobil's U.S. tax bill exceeded its U.S. earnings by $19 billion.

Markey was not impressed.

"These companies are defending billions of federal subsidies ... while reaping over a hundred billion dollars in profits in just the last year alone," he said. The companies are reaping "a windfall of revenue" while poor people have to choose between heating and eating because of high energy prices.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, many independent truckers parked their rigs and others slowed to a crawl on highways to protest high fuel prices. The demonstrations were only scattered, but long lines of trucks were moving at about 20 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike, and three drivers were ticketed for impeding traffic on Interstate 55 outside Chicago, driving three abreast at low speeds.

Of course before the Wars Bush and his cronies started the price of Oil/Gas were much cheaper now weren’t they?