Democrats to Big Oil: Suspend buybacks and dividends during Ukraine war

“As Vladimir Putin’s illegal war against Ukraine is raising gas prices and hurting Americans at the pump, fossil fuel companies are taking advantage of the crisis by raking in record profits and spending billions of dollars to enrich their executives and investors,” House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Ro Khanna, chair of the environment subcommittee, wrote in a letter Monday.

The lawmakers called for the four oil companies to suspend stock buybacks and dividends for “the duration of the Ukraine crisis” and “immediately use those funds to help Americans suffering from high prices at the pump.”

“Big Oil must immediately stop profiteering off the crisis in Ukraine,” the lawmakers wrote.

Beyond spending on new supply of oil and gas, the lawmakers urged the oil companies to make “meaningful investments” in solar, wind and other forms of clean energy to address the climate crisis.

A Shell spokesperson told CNN that Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell USA, plans to address this and other issues at a hearing later this week.

Exxon (XOM), Chevron (CVX) and BP (BP) did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement last week, Chevron noted that it announced plans in December to increase capital spending by 20% this year, translating to more than $8 billion of investments in its US upstream and downstream businesses. Chevron added that it expects to grow production in the Permian Basin beyond 1 million barrels per day.

The spotlight on buybacks and dividends comes the oil industry faces scrutiny from critics, including President Joe Biden, for failing to invest enough of their profits in new supply that would ease near-record gas prices.

Although some politicians blame high gas prices on environmental policies and regulation, oil executives themselves have recently pointed the finger at Wall Street.

Fifty-nine percent of oil executives said investor pressure to maintain capital discipline is the primary reason publicly traded oil producers are restraining growth, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas survey released late last month. Shareholders would prefer oil companies return cash through dividends and buybacks, instead of spending on expensive drilling projects that would add supply.

Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell spent more than $44 billion through buybacks and dividends last year and plan to spend at least another $32 billion on the shareholder rewards this year, according to the letter from House Democrats. All four companies have announced plans to ramp up share buybacks, the letter said.

Of course, suspending buybacks and, especially dividends, could make it even harder for oil companies to attract the capital required to fund expensive drilling programs.

The CEOs of Exxon, Chevron and senior executives from other major oil companies are scheduled to testify before Congress at a hearing on Wednesday titled “Gouged at the gas station: Big Oil and America’s pain at the pump.”

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