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2005-11-10

Sen. Ron Wyden on Soaring Oil Prices and Company Profits and the Senate Investigation into Prewar Intelligence

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Senator Ron Wyden (D–OR) joins to talk about Wednesday’s joint Senate committee hearing on oil company price gouging and why oil executives weren’t made to swear to tell the truth. Wyden also discusses why he voted against the invasion of Iraq, how the Energy bill increases U.S. dependence on foreign oil and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into prewar intelligence. [includes rush transcript]

The heads of five major oil companies defended the industry’s huge profits Wednesday at a joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Commerce committees. The hearing was called in order to investigate price gouging by oil companies. While the oil industry has reaped record profits, consumers have faced record gas prices at the pump and heating costs are expected to skyrocket more than 60 percent in some parts of the country this winter.

Last quarter, the oil industry reported combined profits of $32 billion dollars. ExxonMobil Corporation, the world’s largest privately owned oil company, reported its largest quarterly profits ever of $9.9 billion, up 75 percent. Royal Dutch Shell reported a profit growth of 68 percent, ConocoPhlips, 89 percent, British Petroleum, 34 percent and Chevron Corporation, 12 percent.

A number of Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress have called for a windfall profits tax on oil companies that would be returned to consumers in the form of a rebate. At yesterday’s hearing, the Chairman of ExxonMobil, Lee Raymond, defended the company’s earnings saying that the profits were in line with other industries when earnings are compared to the industry’s revenues.

Before the hearing began yesterday, Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether energy executives should have to swear to tell the truth before the panel. Republican Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens rejected calls by some Democrats to have the executives sworn in saying that the law already required them to tell the truth.

  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Oregon), He serves on the Senate Energy and Commerce committee.
    - Website: Wyden.senate.gov

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone right now in Washington, D.C., by Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, serves on the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee. Well, let’s start right there. Why weren’t the energy executives sworn?

SEN. RON WYDEN: Didn’t make sense to me, Amy. It just seems to me, frankly, that an executive should want to be sworn. I mean, they should want to send the message that they’re telling the truth. But, look, we all understand what enormous power the oil industry has in Washington, D.C. And here’s the bottom line: The American people want oil companies to be good at what they do, but we also think they ought to be good citizens, and what these companies did in terms of padding their profits at a time of national crisis, I just think is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, do you think they just didn’t want to have that same image that has become so famous of all the tobacco industry executives swearing to tell the truth and then denying any link between cancer and tobacco?

SEN. RON WYDEN: My guess is that crossed their mind. By the way, Amy, I was the one who asked the tobacco executives whether nicotine is addictive. It was kind of my Andy Warhol moment in life. I just went right down the row, and I’m sure the oil executives were thinking about the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you ask them yesterday?

SEN. RON WYDEN: Yesterday I really zeroed in on how they had been able to hotwire the political system to get one break after another. For example, the President even said that they don’t need tax breaks when the price of oil exceeds $55 a barrel. The price of crude oil now is $60 a barrel. I’m interested in taking away the billions of dollars of tax breaks that the Congress just gave the oil companies in the brand new energy bill. I’d like to see that money go to folks that are hurting. And the fact of the matter is, on one issue after another we’ve just lost any focus on consumer protection.

And I heard one of the most astounding statements I’ve ever heard in all my time in the Congress from the head of the Federal Trade Commission yesterday. The head of the Federal Trade Commission essentially said that there was no price of oil that was too high, that there was essentially no price that was out of reach, because her theory is that somehow price increases are good because they lower demand, and that somehow is going to increase production, and that’s going to be good for consumers. So we are talking about laissez faire, backing off in a way that is just unprecedented.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Senator Ron Wyden, Democratic senator from Oregon, serving on the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee. The issue of energy inevitably takes us to the issue of war and oil resources. Senator Wyden, you voted against the authorization for the invasion of Iraq?

SENATOR WYDEN:I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Why then? And what are you thinking about this today and your Democratic colleagues who did not share your point of view but rather shared the Republican point of view on this?

SENATOR WYDEN:First of all, I think the evidence was compelling that there were no weapons of mass destruction. I’m glad Saddam Hussein is behind bars. He wasn’t even the worst guy in the neighborhood on the day that the Congress voted. Certainly the Iranians are a bigger threat. But the administration’s, you know, arguments, particularly the ones making the case that Iraq had a nuclear capability, there was just no evidence for it. And I will tell you it does relate to this energy, you know, issue, because we have got to shake our dependence on foreign oil, and what is so outrageous about this energy bill that passed is it really let’s down our men and women who wear the uniform now in Iraq and honor us with their service, because the energy bill makes it no less likely that the kids of those who are wearing the uniform are going to be back in the Middle East in another ten years dealing with a region where we’re dependent on foreign oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Wyden, your party, the Democratic Party, took the Senate into closed session, demanding an investigation, basically, of the committee that’s supposed be too assessing the prewar intelligence that was so wrong. What is going happen from here on in? People thought the Senate’s being shaken up. A panel is set up, among them people like the pro-war Democratic senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Where is this going to go from here? These are people who voted for the invasion and have not taken back their support of the war.

SEN. RON WYDEN: First of all, Amy, this is the Intelligence Committee, and I’m on the Intelligence Committee; Senator Clinton is not. And let me just make sure folks understand what’s going on here. Twenty months ago every single member of the Intelligence Committee, every Democrat and every Republican, agreed that there were going to be two reports: one that described the intelligence, and, second, how the intelligence was used. I mean, we want to know, for example, about the nonexistent relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And there was a bipartisan agreement that there would be that second report done. And, ever since that agreement, there’s just been an excuse-a-rama, one argument after another for not really getting in to what is owed the American people: a report on how the intelligence was used.

So what happened in the closed session was essentially a wake-up call to the Senate to get moving. And I can report there’s been a bit of progress in the last few days on the Intelligence Committee. There’s a long, long way to go, and I and others are going to insist that the American people get what they were promised 20 months ago, which is a factual report that describes how the intelligence was used. I think when the people get it, they’re going to see that that intelligence was really twisted and skewed to advance the administration’s case for going to war.

AMY GOODMAN: And this panel that was set up to assess the Senate intelligence investigation?

SEN. RON WYDEN: Well, what happened was several members of the Intelligence Committee have formed what amounts to a special group that’s going to report by November 14, but the entire Intelligence Committee is involved in it. I sit on the Intelligence Committee, and I can tell listeners that I believe that the wake-up call that was delivered in the special session has had some real effect. There’s been a bit of progress made. There’s a long way to go. But I think people are understanding what’s at stake. For example, a lot of people said, 'Oh, Democrats just popped up out of nowhere to deliver this partisan attack.' No way! This was an agreement that was made by every Democrat and every Republican 20 months ago. Ever since then we have been trying in every way possible to get moving on this report.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Wyden, we only have 30 seconds. I just want to follow up on the discussion we had earlier, you might have caught the tail end of, and that is that the President’s appointment of Stewart Simonson, who is head of Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness within the Department of Health and Human Services being the former corporate council of Amtrak. Do you think this is another example of crony appointments that could endanger this country like Michael Brown, former head of FEMA?

SEN. RON WYDEN: This should be a very important hearing where he’s questioned thoroughly about how he’s going to act in the public interest. Too often these kinds of appointments are just skated through. Those days are over.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he already is head of it.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Well, I think what we’ve got to do is look further into his background and make sure that the positions that he’s going to stake out are in the public interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Senator Ron Wyden, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Democratic senator of Oregon.

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