Little, if any, of the $10 billion the Department of Energy has said the 15 major oil companies overcharged consumers will utltimately be refunded to the American people, a coalition of consumer groups charged yesterday.
In a petition scheduled to be filed today with the DOE, the coalition asks the department to halt the $700 million of settlements already reached between it and some of the companies.
Those consent agreements put an end to cases involving about one-tenth of the total overcharges alleged. The remainder of the cases, all involving alleged violations o complex pricing and allocation regulations from 1973-1976, are being disputed by the oil companies in court and administrative proceedings.
"If these [$700 million] in settlements are any indication of what is to come, consumers will never see most of the $10 billion they have been overcharged," said Ellen Berman, executive director of the Consumer Energy Council of America, a lead group in the coalition.
"As usual," Berman continued, "the oil industry has come out on top, showing it pays to violate the law. These settlements assure the industry of at least a 90 percent success rate in illegal over-charges."
Berman said CEC's analysis of $630 million of the DOE settlements reveals that "a whopping $475 million would be retained by the offending company and will never be received by consumers. Another $114 million . . . would go to middlemen and jobbers, either directly or through a claims procedure."
And finally, she added, less than 7 percent will go directly to consumers in the form of low income heating fuel assistance and reductions in the price of gasoline at the pump.
The Energy Department's Office of Special Counsel, which has brought the overcharge cases over the past two years, has had its hands full developing cases, and has thus spent comparatively little time in working out settlements.
Because the cases have been so complex, often involving the misclassification of products or of purchasers, resulting in charging more for a product than was legaly allowable under the regulations, it has been extremely difficult to pinpoint the ultimate consumer who had been damaged by the overcharges.
There is the problem of the overcharges being spread out over a distribution chain, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine which consumers were overcharged.
Did a wholesaler increase his prices? and by how much? for example. If he didn't how much of a rebate should he get?
Then, even if the final consumers -- say, the purchasers of gasoline at the pump -- are found to have been the overcharged party, the DOE is faced with having to find out which motorists purchased the gasoline that was overpriced.
The settlements that have been reached involve several new attempts to reach those who have been wronged.
In some cases, direct purchases, like wholesalers, can get refunds if they can show that they purchased products directly from the overcharged supplies. In otheer cases, companies have merely rolled back gasoline prices to a region by a set price and reduced heating oil prices for the the remainder of the season.
In one settlement, each level of the distribution chain gets to refund, but only on the condition that it passes on a certain percentage of that refund to the next level.
Other settlement have involved companies having to forego future price increases allowed by regulations, and others forced to purchase more crude oil so they can increase heating oil supplies -- at present prices -- to customers.
"We are trying to get as much as we can back to the consumer," said a DOE official. "But, frankly, in a number of cases there is no way to find out just who consumers were."
"We realize that it may be impossible to calculate rebates to individual customers," admits Berman. "However, the [$700 million] belongs to the individuals who were overcharged, and it should be placed immediately in escrow until a satisfactory means can be developed to disburse it."
The price rollbacks ordered by DOE were labeled as "meaningless paper transactions," by Robert Brandon, spokesman for the Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition, another party to the petition.
The coalition filing the petition said the DOE settlements "make a mockery of President Carter's April, 1979 pledge, in which he promised to 'channel the tens of millions of dollars we are already winning . . . into further energy assistance for lower income citizens."
The consumer groups have suggested the creation of a non-profit organization, outside of the realm of the government, to work out a disbursement plan.