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WASHINGTON -- The nation's five largest oil companies fielded a barrage of charged comments from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who questioned respective multimillion-dollar pay packages and promised Congressional action that could result in a new tax on windfall profits, reported The New York Times.
With oil trading at upwards $133 a barrel and gas prices exceeding the $4 dollar mark in various markets nationally, a quick-fix in the near term in not likely. However, a bill is being kicked around that would allow the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to be sued in American courts under antitrust laws, reported the paper.
Further taxation, the oil companies claimed, could make matters worse. They responded to concerns by calling on Congress to allow more drilling and exploration for domestic oil, both in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and offshore in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, reported The New York Times.
The Democratic driven forum was backed by the House of Representatives who voted on Tuesday 324-84 to approve the Nopec bill, classifying OPEC as a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Leading the charge was Senator Richard J. Durbin who suggested that President Bush should be active in pressing the oil companies to decrease prices at the pumps. However, he acknowledged difficulty in passing a windfall profits tax while Mr. Bush was the sitting president.
"It strikes me that this is the right situation for a president to step in, for a president of the United States to step in," Durbin said during the hearing. "I think the president should be calling you all before his little meeting place, the White House, and talking about what you are doing to the American economy."
In response the House and Senate's strong approval of a bill to temporarily suspend the purchase of crude oil for the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, President Bush signed the bill on Monday. However, he originally opposed such legislation.
The oil executives pushed back, suggesting that Democrats in Congress were at fault for not allowing more drilling and exploration for domestic oil and claimed that global economic conditions were responsible, in part, for the high gas prices.
According to The New York Times, John Hofmeister, the president of Shell Oil Co., retorted, "Oil exporting nations, as has been said, are managing their natural resource development and production to supply their local and global markets in their own self-interest."
While legislation is pending, Democrats sought to draw a defining line between rising gas prices and senior level salaries. Hofmeister and Robert A. Malone, the chairman and president of BP America, responded that their pay was not a matter of public record because they were not among the five highest-paid employees at their companies. The New York Times reported that they volunteered respective annual salaries exceeding two millions dollars.