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The Nation

GOP Calls on Oil Industry to Act

October 26, 2005|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Political anxiety over high gasoline prices reached a new level in Congress on Tuesday as House Republican leaders took aim at the oil industry, traditionally a GOP ally.

With oil companies expected to announce record profits this week, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pressed the industry to explain what it was doing to boost fuel supplies and lower costs for consumers.

"House Republicans have acted," he said, citing the chamber's passage this month of a bill aimed at spurring refinery construction. "Now the oil companies need to do their part."

Hastert called on oil companies to use some of their profits to build and expand refineries and construct a pipeline that would bring natural gas from Alaska to the lower 48 states.

He stopped short of calling for more drastic measures advocated by Democrats and some of his Republican colleagues, such as temporarily suspending the federal gasoline tax or imposing a windfall profits tax.

But the pointed remarks from the House's top Republican to an industry that has been a valuable source of GOP campaign cash was the latest sign of Republican nervousness over low public approval ratings for Congress and public anger over fuel costs.

Though gasoline prices have eased from their record highs after Hurricane Katrina, lawmakers from both parties say they continue to hear an earful from constituents.

Democrats have sought to highlight energy prices as a campaign issue. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mocked Hastert's Tuesday remarks, issuing a statement titled "Speaker Hastert 'Shocked, Shocked to Find' Big Oil Making Big Profits."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) suggested Tuesday that the Republican-controlled Congress repeal the tax breaks and subsidies provided to oil and gas companies in a sweeping energy bill President Bush had signed into law this year.

Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, said Republicans were "clearly feeling the pressure from their constituents to address gas prices and home heating costs."

Hastert, flanked by other Republican leaders at a Capitol Hill news conference, said the oil industry had a right to make money. "That is fine," he said. "This is America."

However, he warned that any companies engaged in price gouging should expect to be prosecuted. And, with his remarks, he said he hoped to pressure the industry to demonstrate that it would use its profits to bring down the price of oil and natural gas.

"These companies need to invest in America's energy infrastructure and resources," he said.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, joined Hastert in calling on oil companies to "give back to the American people and put some of that profit toward lowering the cost of gas...."

John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, said, "We're doing as much as we can" to increase supplies.

ConocoPhillips said in a statement that the company agreed with Hastert that "our industry does need to do more to inform the public about what we are doing to bring down the costs of oil and natural gas, because we have a good story to tell."

The company cited plans to invest $3 billion to $4 billion to expand and upgrade refineries over the next five years -- steps that it said would increase its refinery capacity by about 15%.

The company complained about areas that the government has placed off-limits to energy production.

A House committee is expected to take up legislation today that would ease a long-standing federal ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling and to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

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