WASHINGTON – One week after five top oil executives testified before a joint Senate hearing on record oil profits, three Democratic senators challenged the truth of the executives' testimonies and renewed a call for regulations preventing price gouging by oil companies.
On Wednesday, Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called on Senate leaders to bring back the executives to account for what they say were outright lies.
"We ought to be able to ask questions and get truthful responses," Lautenberg said.
Spokesmen for Shell and ExxonMobil reached Wednesday stood by their executives' statements last week. A spokeswoman for BP America did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
After Hurricane Katrina, oil and gasoline prices skyrocketed, leading to record third-quarter profits by oil companies. The companies represented by the five executives that testified last week collectively reported more than $32.8 billion in third-quarter profits, an increase of more than 55 percent over the previous third-quarter profits. The earnings led senators to hold last week's hearings, where they questioned what executives were doing with their profits and what they were doing to lower gas prices.
Talking to reporters Wednesday, each of the senators challenged a different aspect of the testimony.
Lautenberg charged that the executives lied when they said they did not meet with an energy task force organized by Vice President Dick Cheney to develop the nation's energy policy. The Sierra Club and Judicial Watch unsuccessfully sued to open the task force records after they alleged that energy executives and lobbyists were consulted on national policy, but environmental groups and others were left out of negotiations.
Lautenberg cited a Washington Post report Wednesday that references a White House document listing meetings in 2001 between representatives of the oil companies and members of the task force staff. Officials from ExxonMobil, Conoco — before its merger with Phillips — Royal Dutch/Shell and Shell Oil and BP met with task force members between February and April 2001, the report says.
Last week, under direct questioning from Lautenberg, ExxonMobil President Lee Raymond, Chevron Chairman David O'Reilly and ConocoPhillips chief James Mulva also said they did not take part in the task force.
BP America President and CEO Ross Pillari said: "To be honest ... I wasn't here then."
"But your company was here," Lautenberg pressed.
"Yes," Pillari acknowledged.
Shell Oil Co. President John Hofmeister, who took the helm at Shell this year, said he did not know whether his company's representatives attended task force meetings.
On Wednesday, ExxonMobil spokesman Russ Roberts told FOXNews.com that Raymond's answers were accurate.
"The fact is, there was a meeting, but it was not a task force meeting" in February 2001, Roberts said. The meeting instead was an energy outlook meeting, a presentation that was given to The Washington Post one day later, Roberts said.
"Mr. Raymond made factual comments," Roberts said.
A statement released to FOXNews.com by Shell said: "Mr. Hofmeister’s remarks during the Senate hearing were accurate and honest."
"I cannot confirm if Shell employees participated in official task force meetings," Shell spokeswoman Darci Sinclair said. "However, some members of the administration who met with Shell four years ago were members of the vice president’s task force."
On a narrower topic, Boxer called into question statements by Hofmeister about the sale of a Bakersfield, Calif., oil refinery that provides 2 percent of California's gasoline. At the hearing Boxer asked whether Shell had sought to close the refinery in 2004 in order to boost its profit margin.
"Was it because you wanted to control the supply of gasoline and make gasoline even more expensive for my people in California?" Boxer asked.
Hofmeister responded, in part: "We shopped the refinery around, unofficially, but did not find buyers. We then decided to close it" because, the refinery was old, small and difficult to work with because it was on multiple plots of land.
Hofmeister did not directly respond to Boxer's accusation of trying to short supply to drive up prices.
On Wednesday, Boxer revealed she had received two letters in April and May 2004 from the then-company CEO, who said Shell had no plans to sell the plant and was not seeking buyers, although the company would keep the option open.
"I can just believe nothing about what they said," Boxer said of the executives' testimony. "Shell Oil, in direct response to a question from me, lied to my face."
Shell spokeswoman Sinclair did not respond to the senator's accusation.
For her part, Cantwell disputed claims by BP America CEO Ross Pillari about oil shipping practices and efforts to manipulate the price of oil by diverting its destination.
In last week's hearing, Cantwell asked the executives if they had diverted fuel away from U.S. markets in order to keep supplies low and prices high. The executives said they do not generally divert supplies, but in some instances oil shipments may have been turned away because there was no way to get them into port.
Cantwell on Wednesday said that the combination of testimony by state attorneys general, a 2001 report in The (Portland) Oregonian about BP America's price hikes and a 2003 RAND Corporation report about oil capacity reduction show that the oil company executives were deliberately misleading the panels.
"We deserve truthful answers from the oil company executives," Cantwell said.
Cantwell also called on the Senate to consider legislation that would create a ban on price gouging. She said the bill would give the Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general and the Justice Department the authority to limit fuel price hikes and impose up to $1 million in violations for market manipulation as well as other civil and criminal penalties.
Last week, three state attorneys general testified to the same joint hearing that they largely supported the law because state agencies have difficulties investigating the oil industry. But some concerns were expressed that federal legislation could trample state laws.
Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah Majoras also questioned a price gouging law, saying she believed the FTC was already equipped to handle investigations, and a price gouging statute could have negative, unforeseen effects.
Quick to Judge, Slow to Act
Lautenberg said he had asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the executives had committed any crime. Late Wednesday, Justice Department officials confirmed to FOXNews.com that they received Lautenberg's letter and were reviewing it.
Lautenberg and Boxer both said they believed the executives could still face penalties for making false statements, regardless of whether the men had been sworn in before testifying.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, did not require the executives to take an oath. Witnesses are still subject to a federal code prohibiting them from lying to Congress.
"We need to have those executives ... take that oath, but whether they do or they don't, they're still, I believe, subject to penalties for the way they answered Sen. Lautenberg's question, for the way Shell answered my question," Boxer said.
Late Wednesday, Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the other panel in the joint hearing, issued a statement saying they will ask for a written explanation from the oil executives before deciding whether to take action against them.
“We have agreed to send a joint letter to each of the witnesses involved, asking for their prompt explanation, in writing, of these apparent inconsistencies. Once we have these responses, we will share them with members of the committee and the public, and then discuss further appropriate action," the senators said.
"We take this report seriously, but we think it is important to make sure that we have the facts straight and proceed in a fair and judicious manner," the senators said.