The top consumer affairs official of the Department of Energy has warned the oil companies that they are "heading for nationalization" if they don't explain the present crisis soon and stop what she called "manipulative" practices.
The same official, Tina Hobson, director of consumer affairs for the DOE, has warned key DOE officials in a memorandum that there is also little or no reason that "consumers (shouldn't) believe DOE is misleading, misinforming or even lying to them about petroleum data."
"We are heading toward nationalization of the oil companies," Hobson flatly told corporate consumer affairs representatives and government regulators from several areas at a dinner late Tuesday night.
"I don't want to go in that direction, but if the oil industry and the DOE don't come up with better rationing and something better than those gas lines, there won't be a choice in the matter," she added.
Hobson has held a variety of energy-related positions, including jobs in the Federal Energy Office and the Federal Energy Administration before joining the Department of Energy on Oct. 1, 1977, when it was created.
Although she previously criticized her department's handling of information pertaining to the energy crisis in her internal communications with other DOE officials, Tuesday's comments were her strongest public warning to date.
Hobson said she had information that jobbers for the major oil companies were engaging in a "manipulative process of blackmailing gas station dealers" into staying open for only a limited number of hours and using only a limited number of pumps, "or else." She said dealers were being threatened with being cut off by those jobbers - their only suppliers - if they didn't heed the warnings.
"The system is fraught with inequities," she said.
In a recent internal memorandum to Energy Information Administration head Lincoln Moses and several other DOE officials which was obtained by the Washington Post, Hobson warned that "many consumers could reasonably question the department's projected shortfalls." She cited impartial interpretations that differ with DOE conclusions on oil supply problems.
Further, she said, "While the department may have confused consumers regarding the demand for oil, it appears that information (also) was incorrectly provided on oil supplies and imports."
She said alleged manipulation of import figures by the DOE "has raised significant consumer doubt about the department's credibility."
"In addition to inaccurately reporting information on imports, the department may not have released accurate information on domestic production," Hobson added.
Her memo suggested that the department consider releasing significantly more raw information on the oil industry to consumers for their own analysis, as well as the department's interpretation of that data and assumptions behind that interpretation.
At the meeting Tuesday night, Hobson acknowledged that the department long has had a "problem" of sharing considerable information with oil industry representatives or lobbyists while withholding the same information from consumer groups.
"We have a credibility problem with consumers, and we aren't helping it now," she said.
Hobson said she has gone to speak to several groups about the energy crisis lately, but in her most recent speech before consumer leaders, she said she was shouted down and not even allowed to speak. "People are getting impatient with us," she said.