Congress Set to Grill Big Oil Bosses on Tax Subsidies, Gas Prices

Senate panel summons five oil executives to high-profile hearing.

ByABC News
May 11, 2011, 2:41 PM

May 12, 2011 -- Congress will grill Big Oil executives at what is likely to be a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill today amid widespread anger over high gas prices.

The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Montana Democrat Max Baucus, is poised to question Chevron's John Watson, Shell's Marvin Odum, BP's Lamar McKay, ConocoPhillips' James Mulva, and Exxon's Rex Tillerson.

It is all part of an effort by Democrats to push a new bill that would scrap tax breaks for the five companies, the biggest and most profitable ones in the country. Democrats want to cut about $2 billion per year in tax subsidies for the companies and use the savings to pay down the nation's soaring federal deficit.

"Every year, oil companies get billions of dollars of subsidies from the American taxpayers," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday.

"Common sense tells us these oil companies do not need these huge subsidies. We've had executives of these oil companies who have said so in the past. Recently, the former CEO of Shell has said that. And economists recognize that these subsidies, if we took them away, would not affect gas prices at all. The only purpose these subsidies serve is to line the pockets of these oil companies."

The Senate is set to vote on the measure sometime in the next week, but its chances of passing appear slim to none. The measure will need 60 votes to pass, a tall order in a chamber where there are only 53 Democrats and even some of them -- such as Alaska's Mark Begich and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu -- don't support the measure.

"It's a gimmick," Begich railed on the Senate floor Wednesday, denouncing the bill as "good fodder for the news" but nothing more.

Landrieu, meanwhile, said the bill would not "reduce the price of gas by one penny." It was not the first time the Louisiana lawmaker has blasted attempts to target the industry.

"Every time the companies start making money, people want to tax what they get. But when they're losing money, no one wants to help them because of this sort of bias against oil and gas companies which comes from some sector, you know, of our democracy," Landrieu said at a March 10 news conference.

"We want to create more millionaires in America. We want to create more wealth in America, so we've got to be careful about continuing to pick on this industry every time somebody is looking for a dime around Washington, D.C.," she added.

Republicans have lined up in opposition to the Democrats' new bill.

"Every time gas prices go up, Democrats claim there's nothing they can do about it," the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Monday. "Then they propose something completely counterproductive just to quiet their critics. This time it's a tax increase. That is the Democrat response to high gas prices: a tax hike.

"Well, the first thing to say about this proposal is that it won't do a thing to lower gas prices. In fact, raising taxes on American energy production will increase the price of gas. Oh, and it would also make us even more dependent on foreign sources of oil.

"That's not my view," he added. "That's the view of the independent Congressional Research Service, which concluded in March that the Democrat's proposed tax increase on energy production would, 'make oil and natural gas more expensive for U.S. consumers and likely increase foreign dependence.' Sounds like a brilliant strategy."