President Carter unleashed a blistering rhetorical offensive against the U.S. oil industry yesterday in an attempt to rouse national support for his foundering energy program.
In a televised press conference, he raised the specter of "war profiteering" by the companies, which have opposed his energy proposals in the Senate, and suggested that the impending energy crisis could give rise to "the greatest rip-off in history."
It was the harshest invective the President has yet directed at the oil producers, who comprise one of the most financially and politically powerful segments of the American industrial economy.
". . . The oil companies apparently want it all," the President declaimed. "We are talking about enormous amounts of money. Never before in our history has this much money been involved in a decision controlled by government policy and by legislation."
Carter asserted that the oil and gas industries were operating outside the free enterprise system, a charge that is perhaps unprecedented from the Presidential podium.
They are not part of the system, he said, "because prices are not free. They are heavily influenced by decisions made outside our country, by the OPEC nations, and they are heavily influenced by some control [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the rate of production by American companies." The Organization of petroleum Exporting Countries [WORD ILLEGIBLE] has been largely responsible for guadrupling of world prices in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] years.
The President's attack immediately provoked critical responses from industry representatives and from his congressional opponents.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Richard L. Lesher said, "The President's shocking remarks about 'war profiteering' by the oil industry are not supported by the facts . . . investment by oil producers has remained around the same level or slightly less than industry as a whole in recent years."
Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said, "The President's bill is in trouble because it is a bad program."
The Senate Finance Committee has killed three of the key elements in the Carter administration plan - proposed taxes on crude oil, low-mileage "gas-guzzler" cars and on industrial use of oil and natural gas. The full Senate, meanwhile, has weakened other parts of the plan and, over the President's strong objections and veto threat, voted to deregulate the price of new natural gas.
Carter has said repeatedly, as he did yesterday, that energy is the most important domestic issue facing him and the nation. His hope of salvaging something from his original proposals now rests with a House-Senate conference committee, which White House strategists are counting on to hammer out acceptable legislation from whatever the Senate ends up adopting and the House-passed version of the plan, which the President says is acceptable.
Carter brushed aside on suggestion at the news conference that the energy plan is stalled because all the other administration initiatives in foreign and domestic policy have diverted his and his aides' attention. But implicitly conceding that he may not have paid enough attention to the battle in the Senate, he said he would devote most of his time in the coming weeks "trying to make sure we have a fair and adequate energy package."
The President also declined to criticize the Senate for its actions, crediting Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) with "working long and hard to some up with an acceptable energy package."
Carter, striking a serious pose, was clearly primed for the assault on the oil industry. He had notes with him, but he did not consult them as he rattled off his opening statement filled with figures on energy prices and consumption.
His reference to "war profiteering" was an outgrowth of his rhetoric of last April, when he unveiled the energy plan and called the struggle to enact war." It "the moral equivalent of [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE].
"But as is the case in time of war, there is potential war profiteering in the impending energy crisis," the President said yesterday. "This could develop with the passing months as the biggest rip-off in history."
Carter said it is inevitable that energy prices will continue to rise. The question before the nation, he said, is "who will profit from these prices and to what degree."
The argument he advanced was basically the one he has been making for months - that the administration proposals would give the oil and gas industries sufficient incentive for increase exploration and production, and to give them more would be a "ripoff" of American consumers.
"Under our proposal, by 1985 their [the oil and gas industries] annual income would be about $100 billion, an enormous increase," the President said. "But the oil companies and gay companies are now demanding [more] and making some progress. It is $150 billion. The difference will not encourage increased production of oil. But that difference will come out of the pockets of the American consumers and go into the pockets of the oil companies themselves.
"Our proposal, if adopted, would give the oil companies, the producers themselves, the highest prices for oil in all the world," he added. "But still they want more."