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 that 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," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., 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.