Big Oil Before Congress: Just a Show Trial?

The top executives of the nation's largest oil companies are once again being summoned before Congress to testify about the skyrocketing cost of gasoline.

But even before they were sworn in, the price of oil started to climb even higher. Oil spiked overnight Tuesday and traded above $133 a barrel Wednesday, up more than $4 from yesterday's close.

Oil prices have doubled in the last year and that has been passed on to Americans at the pump. The average price of a gallon of regular gas now stands at a record $3.79.

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Looking for relief? Don't expect thehearing to be any different from the last time the oil chiefs were hauled before Congress. Or the time before. Or the time before that. This is at least the forty-fifth such hearing in the last five years.

Every few years, as rising oil prices hit consumers, the House, the Senate or both decide to call in the oil companies. They hold grand hearings but then don't take any action.

The last such hearing was on April 1, and it started off with a bang.

"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., chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Wednesday's hearing was no different.

"We need to get prices under control and back to competitive levels and we need to do it now," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., added: "The American economy is buckling under the weight of gas prices. And while consumers and businesses suffer from these price increases, the oil industry seems only to get richer and richer."

The oil executives blamed the rising prices mainly on supply and demand, while asking Congress to help strengthen American competitiveness by opening up new federal lands for oil exploration and production.

The oil executives were determined to get across the message that the market sets the price for what you buy at the pump.

"The point is that it's not our profitability in this business that is driving the higher prices that consumers pay," said J. Stephen Simon, Senior Vice President of Exxon Mobil.

"U.S. oil companies should be viewed as the key to the energy solution, not as scapegoats," added John Lowe, Executive Vice President for ConocoPhillips.

But that's exactly what the Senators did.

"You have to sense what you guys are doing to us," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who later called the oil companies "unconscionable"

"We're on the precipice here and about to fall into a recession," Durbin said. "Is there anybody here who has any concerns about what you're doing to this country?"

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said: "Apparently you have no ethical compass about the price of gasoline."

She said the oil executives made it sound like the are the victims.

"I don't think you are," Feinstein said.

Election-Year Punching Bags

"The Congress feels the need to signal to voters that they are moving heaven and Earth to reduce gasoline prices and are investigating every single possible idea to do this," said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

While the politicians might endorse an idea in their rhetoric, Taylor said, they "won't necessarily vote for it or push very hard to get it adopted."

The oil executives first appeared as a group before Congress on Nov. 9, 2005 -- when oil had risen to $58.93 a barrel.

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