Executives of 10 major oil companies, meeting yesterday at the Department of Energy with top adminsitration officials, gave assurances they would "take whatever steps they can to ameliorate any [oil] supply interruption," according to Energy Secretary Charles Duncan.
The companies were not asked to observe any new, more stringent price or profit guidelines in the face of the sharp profit increases recently reported by most oil companies, one source at the meeting said.Such guidelines were proposed in a recent memo prepared by White House officials but never submitted to President Carter.
The meeting came only hours after DOE had charged five oil companies with overcharging customers $365 million through crude oil pricing violations between 1973 and 1976.
The accused companies -- Shell Oil Co. ($173.9 million), Sun Co. ($104.5 ada Hess Corp. ($12.3 million) interest and expectation of the Ameriada Hess Corp. ($12.3 million) -- claimed the actions were politically motivated.
Executives of the last three companies attended yesterday's meeting, but the charges were not brought up.
"Our discussion today dealt in part with price," Duncan said, " . . . with the interst and expectation of the American public in this regard, and with the ability and willingness of the companies to look at their interests over the long term."
Most of the meeting was devoted to dealing with potential supply interruptions and new difficulties in the world spot market for petroleum, particularly the way in which nations, rather than companies, are now buying and selling on that market.
The executives raised questions about both the potential and the need for cooperation among consuming nations. Some countries are stockpiling oil and "everybody is looking out for themselves," as one participant put it.
Besides the spot market difficulties,the meeting also addressed the question of how the government and the companies could cooperte to assure that the United States has access to foreign crude oil if there is a supply interruption.
Because of possible antitrust problems, specific company-by-company actions in the event of a supply problem will be discussed in separate meetings.
Meanwhile, the industry reacted angrily to new DOE allegations that five large oil companies overcharged customers by $365 million from 1973 to 1976.
F. E. Ellis, Conoco's vice president of North American production, said DOE "is playing politics by regularly flooding the news media with releases based on unsubstantied charges and incorret assumptions designed to demoralize the petroleum industry and mislead the public."
He said the latest allegations of overcharges, including $62 million by Conoco, were another example of DOE's "trail by press" policy.
"Last year," Ellis said, "Conoco filed suit to force a clarification of the DOE's confused pricing regulations on certain domestic crude oils. The suit is now in court. Rather than wait for the court's decision, the DOE has launched another headline-seeking campaign."
In Houston, Shell Oil officials said they will contest the allegation that Shell overcharged customers by $173.9 million -- an allegation they labeled "political fingerpointing."
"The most recent charge is as unfounded as the DOE's publicity tactics are unfair," said a Shell spokesman. "The DOE's back-to-back press announcements [on Tuesday, DOE alleged $1.2 billion in overcharges by nine oil companies] alleging pricing violations cannot be without political overtones."
"It would be absurd," he said, "to ignore the fact that these charges against the industry are all being made while the administration is in the midst of a campaign to enact punitive tax legislation against the oil industry."
The allegations, filed in the form of adminstrative notices of probable violation, stem from a two-year investigation of industry compliance with complex pricing and allocation regulations set up after the 1973 oil crisis.
DOE's Office of Special Counsel, which is conducting that probe, has until the end of the year to complete detailed audits of the top 15 oil companies. At this point, the office has alleged $6.8 billion in overcharges. cIt has collected only about $370 million, however, since the companies have challenged most of the allegations.