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Oil executives defend against accusations of price gouging at House panel hearing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who is really responsible for the spike in gas prices? Democrats in Congress summoned the CEOs from ExxonMobil, Chevron and other firms, and Representative Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, among others, told them off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORI TRAHAN: Each of you have been crystal clear in public statements in the past month that Putin's invasion has been great for your bottom line. Not only have each of you taken advantage of this war and the crisis that it has produced to return even more profit to shareholders, but it also appears that at least five top oil executives have cashed out some $99 million worth of stock personally since the invasion began.

INSKEEP: Ouch. Representative Trahan is on the line. Good morning.

TRAHAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So were you satisfied with the response from the oil companies at this hearing, where they essentially said, we're not price gouging - this is just a market?

TRAHAN: Well, I think the truth will be in their actions, right? We've heard a lot of commitments to increasing oil supply, but we'll see. I mean, look; yesterday's hearing was an opportunity for the leaders of some of America's largest oil companies to explain to the American people why, despite the price of oil starting to come down, their home heating bills and their gas prices aren't following suit. And we did hear a lot of lip service from those CEOs during the hearing about how they aren't responsible for gas prices. But what they conveniently left out of those responses is how much they've been touting those prices to their shareholders, and that's because they're making a lot of money, record-setting profits in some cases. And, you know, hardworking Americans here in Massachusetts and across our country are paying the price.

INSKEEP: Granted that they're making a lot of money now, there have been other periods, like the beginning of the pandemic, when they've made very little. Is this not a global market that individual companies do not really control?

TRAHAN: Absolutely. You know, there are a lot of inputs into gas prices. But I'll just point to the fact that the companies that testified before the committee yesterday, they netted over $76 billion in profits last year. And many of these same CEOs bragged to their boards and their investors about their stock buybacks that were designed to pump up their share price. You know, meanwhile, executives themselves are collecting 10, 15 or even $30 million a year in base salary while trading their stocks on the side to give them $1 million boost here and there. And that's a slap in the face to every hardworking family I represent who's considering taking on a second or even third job to cover the hit they're taking at the pump. And it's something that these companies have the ability to change immediately.

INSKEEP: Can you help us think through some of the partisan labeling on this? As you know very well, Republicans have blamed the Biden administration for failing to approve more oil leases or drilling permits where leases already exist. I know the Biden administration did start off in its early month approving a lot of permits. That has now slowed down, although the administration claims companies are free to drill more if they want to right now. Do you believe that the federal government could do more to loosen supply of oil from federal lands?

TRAHAN: Well, I do believe that the permits that are already - have been approved, they need to be using those. I mean, we heard a lot of talking points from CEOs during yesterday's hearing, and rather than join us in exploring actual solutions to the energy issues folks are facing, I mean, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle chose to further politicize this hearing for their own gain. And that's extremely unhelpful. What's worse, they're totally buying the fact that these companies are saying they have 9,000 approved permits, permits that are ready to go, but that they need more. And it just sounds an awful lot like they're using this moment of crisis with the war in Ukraine and families still recovering from the pandemic to hold the American people hostage unless they get even more permits. And what we didn't hear from them yesterday was what that ransom request was. How many permits above the 9,000 they have right now would be enough? So it's a gross indictment of the oil industry's priorities, and the American people, I believe, can see right through it.

INSKEEP: Let's think through where the Biden administration is, though, in the situation that we're in. The U.S. is cutting off supplies of Russian oil. Europe is thinking about the same thing. Steps are being taken that would constrict supply. So you need to get more supplies from somewhere. I know that climate change is a huge priority for the president, but his approach has been, in 20 years, we need to be weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. We may need more fuels in the present time. So that leads to my question - can and should the United States government be doing more to encourage domestic oil production in the next, say, two, three years?

TRAHAN: Well, we're not going to get there - I am for energy independence. And I think the only way to truly achieve that without destroying our planet before our grandchildren can inherit it is by transitioning away from fossil fuels, especially ones that fuel the war machines of dictators like Vladimir Putin. But we are not going to get there overnight. And ramping up oil production in the short term is a necessary step to make sure we don't hurt working families' ability to recover from the pandemic and get back on their feet. But making strong investments in renewable energy resources is just - it's smart. It's cost effective because of the jobs it'll create and the savings that'll be passed along to every family. And it's just the right thing to do to preserve our planet for our children and our grandchildren. And I think the president has laid out as such what our short-term and our long-term solutions must be as we go through this inflection point.

INSKEEP: Representative Trahan, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

TRAHAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Lori Trahan of Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.