The White House yesterday accused the Amerada Hess Corp., a major U.S. oil refiner, of violating the president's voluntary price guidelines and said it is notifying several other oil firms that they may be doing the same.
The action follows a Council on Wage and Price Stability study concluding that the recent rise in gasoline prices across the nation has been "far larger than can be explained" by the rise in crude-oil prices alone.
The council estimated that of an estimated 8.5-cent-a-gallon increase in gasoline prices nationally between January and April only a little more than a third was attributable to higher crude oil prices. The rest reflected higher profit margins for refiners and retailers.
Officials said they plan to refer the data on gasoline pricing patterns to the Energy Department for possible enforcement.
Under President Carter's wage-price program, Amerada Hess has seven days to appeal the charges made specifically against it or face possible denial of federal contracts.
The action came after Alfred E. Kahn, Carter's chief inflation-fighter, all but admitted that the wage-price guidelines have been ineffective, saying they are "incapable" of stemming inflation in the current economic environment.
Kahn also blamed Carter's decision to sign last year's tax-cut bill for the overheating that the economy suffered last winter and early this year. If Carter had vetoed the measure, he said, "we might have taken . . . the top off" inflation.
Kahn also said the administration should have tried to cut another $2 billion or so from the current year's federal budget. And he again endorsed the use of selective credit controls to help control inflation.
The public finger-pointing at Amerada Hess marked the second time since the start of the wage-price program last October that the administration has formally cited a corporation for violating its price guidelines.
Two weeks ago, the wage-price council cited a Denver-based cement company, a division of Ideal Basic Industries Inc., as violating the price standards. However, the firm chose to appeal the White House action, and the case is pending.
In discussing the gasoline price situation yesterday, both Kahn and the wage-price council refused to say publicly whether the increases in refiners' and retailers' margins amounted to any form of price-gouging.
They also declined to disclose the names of other oil companies facing similar charges in coming days. Kahn said earlier that as many as nine firms might be listed as "probable noncompliers," but officials later retracted this.
The wage-price chief also indicated earlier that he probably will recommend easing price restrictions on lead, zinc and aluminum, on grounds that the limits are so excessive that they are driving some firms to export their goods, heightening shortages at home.
He also conceded he was not sure if the administration will be able to hold the present wage standard to 7 percent if the program continues into 1980. With inflation running at a 14 percent pace this year, there is pressure to ease the limit.
The council's report on oil and gasoline prices was accompanied by a study by Congress' General Accounting Office concluding that oil companies now may be able to raise prices virtually at will because the Energy Department is unable to enforce its rules.
The report also faulted the Energy Department for spending too much time trying to decide whether an oil company's violation is "willful," and called for earlier involvement in such cases by the Justice Department.
The wage-price council decision on Amerada Hess charged that the company had not complied with either of the agency's two major price standards, and even had conceded that it was in violation.
The council quoted Amerada Hess as replying in a letter: "We regret that the price guidelines as established by the council do not allow Amerada Hess to comply."
There was no explanation of why the company took that position, and Amerada Hess' spokesman was not available for comment last night.
The New York-based refiner and the eight or nine others presumably to be named soon were the only ones among 80 that officials investigated which were found to be violating the price guidelines.
The 8.5 cent-a-gallon rise in gasoline prices cited by the council covered the period from January to April. The agency said gasoline prices rose an additional 4.7 cents in April and jumped an estimated 4.2 cents in May.
Moreover, Kahn told reporters, the posted figures understate the actual price increases that consumers have had to pay because many service stations have stopped offering discounts to customers who pump their own gasoline.
Kahn's remarks about the guidelines and the administration's economic policies were made at a breakfast meeting with reporters. On other topics, the anti-inflation chief:
Blamed the administration's earlier failure to cut spending for much of the present economic trouble, saying the "the president's instincts have been better than those of his advisers," who talked him into tax cuts and more spending.
Conceded that, with the current jump in crude-oil prices, Carter's decisions to lift controls on oil prices could have a worse impact than first estimated, possibly half to three-quarters of a percentage-point a year in inflation.
Insisted that conditions now are so bad that Carter must go to the country next year conceding that Americans are going to suffer a reduction in their standard of living, a difficult message during an election year.