For public consumption, President Carter decried the hoggish profits the oil giants announced for the third quarter of this year. His words were tough enough. He argued that the $1.1 billion increase in profits for Exxon and the 211 percent boost in Texaco's revenues demonstrated why Congress should enact a windfall tax on uncontrolled oilprices.
But in the inner sanctums of Big Oil, his rhetoric provoked sniggers. The oil barons were aware the president is wielding a weak stick.
With the oil lobbyists working furiously, Congress is unlikely to give Carter an effective windfall profits bill. Worse yet, neither the Energy Department nor the Justice Department has shown much spine in dealing with the energy rip-off.
Officials at the Energy Department have authority to control prices, but they've succumbed to the industry's blandishments that reduced prices would encourage overconsumption and discourage exploration. Restrictions on jet fuel and heating oil prices have already been jettisoned by the government. The administration plans to dump all controls on gasoline by 1982.
Heating oil sold for 31 cents a gallon when prices were deregulated in 1976. It now sells for about 80 cents and is headed higher -- out of the reach of the poor. Jet fuel has risen about 50 percent since controls were lifted last spring, with a corresponding jump in air fares.
An Energy Department report estimates that if gasoline controls have been similarly discarded last summer during the shortage, the oil companies would have raked in $60 million to $150 million more each day.
Carter's energy advisers stubbornly contend that competition in a free-for-all marketplace will protect consumers from industry gouging. But economists outside the White House circle challenge their assumption as naive. There have been 50 oil company mergers in the past 30 years; the control of everything from wells to gas pumps is monopolistically falling into fewer hands.
The supposedly competitive big companies are working hand-in-hand, sharing pipelines, bidding for government offshore oil holdings, dealing with OPEC governments abroad and grabbing for control of alternative energy sources such as gasohol and solar power.
With this cozy relationship in mind, a leading economist skeptically asked: "Are oil companies likely to engage in a serious price war if it's going to disrupt relationships that are moving along toward some lucrative joint venture?"
Last May, Carter directed the Justice Department's antitrust division to investigate whether there was an industry conspiracy to profiteer on the heels of the Iranian revolution. Scarcely a peep has been heard on the subject since. Donald Kaplan, chief of the division's energy section, told our associate Peter Grant that a number of "preliminary investigations" are in progress but quickly added, "you can't have a government agency conducting witch hunts."
The Federal Trade Commission has a long-standing suit filed against eight of the major oil companies, charging price-fixing and other antitrust practices. Yet Justice Department officials express the view that the oil market is capable of competition, thus undercutting the FTC's case. Even protesting phone calls from the commission haven't prevented the Justice Department from providing ammunition for the oil company lawyers.
At another level, six states are waging an antitrust battle against the industry, claiming documents show a conspiracy to work in cahoots ever since the oil squeeze began. Tony White, a Washington state attorney, said the states are trying to work with Justice but are being frustrated.
"When we give something to Justice, we never get anything back," he told us. "Usually when someone has an interest in something, they get back to you."
One energy authority on Capitol Hill remarked: "It's really disheartening to talk to refiners who say the Justice Department is on their side." Within the administration, a source confided: "The oil companies are so large, they're intimidating Justice."
The consumer interests fare no better at the Energy Department where industry-oriented sympathies prevail. The department's Office of Hearings and Appeals recommended last year that the government consider reimposing some controls on heating oil and other distillate fuels. Statistics showed that prices on these products were rising faster than costs. The hearing panel questioned whether workable competition exists in the heating oil market.
Their recommendation was rejected. The department, instead, is compiling data on prices as they rise, holding hearings and writing reports. "They're soon going to be writing reports on their reports," one disgruntled insider said.