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Pumping for Answers

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank sketches the Senate Judiciary's hearing on the increasing price of oil. Video by Akira Hakuta/

"Unconscionable," resumed Durbin. "Where is the corporate conscience here?"

"We're investing all we can," Mr. $28.4 million said.

Oh? The House committee on global warming distributed a report at the hearing noting that the largest oil company, Exxon Mobil, made a $40 billion profit last year, repurchased $31.8 billion of stock, gave out $7.6 billion in dividends, paid its top five executives $76 million and "invested roughly $10 million in renewable energy."

The oilmen made things worse for themselves by blaming Congress for limiting domestic oil drilling. They also contradicted one another as they explained away their huge profits. Exxon's Simon spoke of his "dependence on high earnings in the current up-cycle to sustain the huge investments required over the longer term" -- moments after Chevron's Robertson postulated that the up-cycle was permanent. "Easy access to cheap oil is over," he pronounced.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused them of offering "a litany of complaints that you're all just hapless victims of a system."

The oil men had the bad luck to be called before the Judiciary Committee, where the industry's campaign contributions are lower than those to members of the energy and commerce panels.

Still, there were friends of Big Oil. "We need to produce more oil in the United States," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who received $252,000 from the industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He admitted that "people say, 'Well, you're just shilling for the oil companies.' " Likewise, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-$237,000), announced that "we can't run our country . . . without oil and gas, and anybody who doesn't understand that just doesn't understand what it takes to run America." The men from Chevron and Exxon heartily agreed.

But even Republican patience with Big Oil was running on empty. When Chevron's Robertson raised objections to antitrust actions against OPEC and proposed "talking" instead, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-$416,000) shot back: "Talking hasn't done a whole lot of good. Vice President Cheney is practically on a commuter line. And the president was just there. Came back -- his tank was empty." To illustrate this point, Leahy displayed a poster of Bush holding hands with a Saudi leader.

Ultimately, the big-dollar donations from the energy industry couldn't compete with other dollar amounts on the lawmakers' minds. "The price of a gallon of gas at the pump today in Vermont reached a record $3.77," Leahy reported.

"It cost me $61 to fill up my Ford pickup truck at the Shell station in Springfield," complained Durbin.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) added that in his state, "regular was $3.89, medium was $4.04, super was $4.12." Asked the senator: "Where does this end?"

"I would like to be able to answer that," Exxon's Simon said. But "it's absolutely impossible" to predict. "I'm not smart enough to do so."

What did you expect from a guy earning only $32.7 million?

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