The nation's oil companies could face "breakup or even nationalization" if they continue to enrage public opinion with their high profits, Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), warned yesterday.
"I believe in free enterprise from the top of my head to the tip of my toes," Baker, who is expected to be a Republican presidential candidate, said, but the oil companies "are headed for disaster and they don't realize it."
In an appearance on Issues and Answers (ABC, WJLA), Baker said the oil companies are "being short-sighted in the level of retained earnings that they're distributing to their stockholders." The money, he said, should be channeled back into oil production.
Baker said he recently told an oil industry representative that "if you don't get those profits plowed back into production and less of it into dividends, this country will turn on you and devour you."
While the oil companies have in the past been targets of antitrust actions, nationalization has not yet been proposed seriously.
"If the public gets the idea that the oil companies are gouging," Baker said, they "might be headed for something far worse than controls . . .
"If ever there was a case where private responsibility to take account of public opinion, it is now.
"I see no evidence that they're doing that."
Baker also joined Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (W. Va.) in suggesting that President Carter work with Congress to revive a standby gas rationing plan.
The president's proposal, which was defeated in the House last week, suffered from the administration's inability to "get its act together," Baker said.
He said, for example, that the Senate had received three different versions of Carter's rationing plan before voting on it and passing it.
"Nobody wants gasoline rationing," Baker said. "But on the other hand, it's clear that there is a problem of gasoline supply. And if we don't make provisions to solve that problem or to meet that crisis when it occurs, I think we're all guilty of neglect.
"So I really fault the president for saying that he isn't going to send a plan [a second rationing plan] . . . The issue is "too important to get angry about," the minority leader said. CAPTION: Picture, SEN. HOWARD BAKER . . . Oil industry "headed for disaster."