WASHINGTON — Amid a swirl of partisan finger-pointing on who is responsible for rising energy prices, executives of six large oil and gas companies defended themselves on Wednesday against criticisms that they are seeking to boost corporate profits by refusing to produce more oil and gas.
They appeared before a House committee as high gasoline prices have become a central issue ahead of the midterm elections in November. Republicans have blamed Biden administration regulations and environmental policies for shortfalls in energy production, while Democrats have questioned why companies could not lower gasoline prices as oil prices have eased somewhat since a spike after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trying to duck the political debate, the executives said they were not engaging in price gouging and were merely responding to global commodity prices that were out of their control. They also said they were working to shift to cleaner energy.
“We are here to get answers from big oil companies on why they are ripping off the American people,” said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, during the hearing. “At a time of record profits, Big Oil is refusing to increase production.”
The oil executives took exception to the accusations by Democrats, but remained low key in their responses.
“Because oil is a global commodity, Shell does not set or control the price of crude oil,” Gretchen H. Watkins, the president of Shell USA, told the committee in her prepared remarks. “Today’s crisis and the pressure on hydrocarbon supplies and prices reveal the urgent need to accelerate the energy transition.”
Michael Wirth, Chevron’s chief executive, insisted that the company had “no tolerance for price gouging.”
With his approval ratings falling to a new low as inflation has stayed high for months, President Biden has struggled to explain the rise in gas prices to the American people. In an attempt to capitalize on broad support for crippling sanctions on Russia, the administration has tried to characterize the recent uptick in gas prices as “Putin’s price hike.”
But Republicans have tried to hang the increase around the president’s neck, noting that the price of gas has been on the rise for a year, long before Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They have used anxiety about higher gas prices as their main argument to voters about the need for a change in leadership.
Republicans have hammered Mr. Biden for his cancellation of permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, as well as pauses on new leases for oil wells on federal lands. White House officials have tried to explain that neither policy is responsible for the rise in gas prices.
In reality, the loosening of pandemic restrictions has increased demand for gas when supply is not rising quickly enough. Both supply and demand are being driven by factors that are out of the control of Mr. Biden and Congress.
Still, the attacks appear to be working. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought the rise in gas prices was a result of the war in Ukraine, with more Americans blaming the Biden administration’s policies.
A recent NBC News poll showed that despite broad support for banning Russian oil imports, the majority of Americans were still worried about gas prices. Polls have shown Mr. Biden’s approval ratings to be near the lowest of his presidency, at about 40 percent, suggesting that Americans hold him responsible even if they support some of his foreign policies.
Some Democrats facing competitive races in November have pushed to suspend the federal gas tax through the end of the year. But Republicans quickly shot down the proposal, calling it a desperate attempt to appeal to voters.
Progressives have also tried to use the spike in energy and gas prices to push for investments in clean energy in order to reduce the reliance on foreign authoritarian leaders and oil companies. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a report published this week that the world needs to significantly accelerate efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions from oil and other fossil fuels in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing sought to capitalize on Mr. Biden’s weak position.
“This is not the Putin price hike,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington. “This is the Biden price hike. It’s been a steady climb since he took office.” She said Democrats were seeking another scapegoat by blaming the oil industry.
Ms. Rodgers and other Republicans criticized what they called administration efforts to ease oil sanctions on Venezuela…
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