Pressed by constituents alarmed by skyrocketing gasoline prices in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) accused oil companies of manipulating energy markets to enhance profits and decried a lack of national leadership for a plan to free the country from dependence on foreign oil.
"I want to go after the oil companies and the oil speculators and the manipulators of the money, because they're the ones who I think are really behind this," Clinton told an audience in Elmira Heights on Thursday. "You have a hurricane, and all of a sudden you see prices going up like that. That has . . . everything to do with people trying to make money off the backs of this tragedy."
Clinton repeatedly took aim at record profits rolled up by energy giants during the last quarter as crude oil prices have continued to rise. Her rhetoric was at times angry, exasperated, frustrated and passionate. "You just cannot convince me that they are not manipulating this market," she told another audience near Newark, N.Y.
Citing Exxon Mobil Corp.'s record $7.64 billion profit in the past quarter as evidence that the government needs to take action, she said it is time to send a message to the industry that "they're being watched" as consumers deal with rising prices. "If we don't fight Big Oil, this country's going down," she said. "We're not going to have the standard of living and the quality of life, and we're not going to be able to control our future."
Clinton sparred with one constituent who called for a rollback of state and federal gasoline taxes to ease the pain of increases that have pushed prices well above $3 a gallon in many places since the hurricane hit Monday morning. Clinton said that will not solve the problem.
"We can get some temporary relief, but that's not the answer, and we don't have the leadership we need to stand up and fight for what should be the answer and the sacrifices people should be willing to make," she said.
The anxiety and anger felt by motorists was evident at nearly every turn in her travels throughout the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. She made clear she shared the concern.
"I think it's time to send a clear message to what has become the most profitable sector in our entire economy that they're being watched," she said in explaining her call for an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission. "I think human nature left to itself is going to push the limit as far as possible, and that's what you need a government regulatory system for: to keep an eye on people to make the rules of the game fair, to make a level playing field and not give anybody some kind of undue advantage."
Clinton criticized the new energy bill, which she opposed, as inadequate to solve the country's long-term energy problem. She said the United States has regressed over the past three decades, since the first oil shocks of the early 1970s. "We've had 30 years to do some things we haven't done," she said. "In fact we've gotten, we've gone backwards in many respects.
"I am tired of being at the mercy of people in the Middle East and elsewhere, and I'm tired frankly of being at the mercy of these large oil companies," Clinton said.