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'Big Oil' faces grilling in US Congress

12 may 2011, 12:37
With Americans furious at sky-high gasoline prices and tax breaks for "Big Oil" under fire, a key US Senate committee will put five senior oil executives in the dock on Thursday, AFP reports.

The bosses of Chevron, Shell US, BP America, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil will be dragged before the powerful Senate Finance Committee, where they will face allegations of banking record profits at taxpayers' expense.

The hearing -- which promises to be replete with political theater -- will discuss "ending tax breaks for the largest multinational oil and gas companies," according to the office of committee chairman, Max Baucus.

President Barack Obama's Democratic allies in Congress have called for an end to around $2 billion a year in tax breaks for the biggest players in the industry, which is currently enjoying record profits.

In a letter to colleagues, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said the proposal would cut "wasteful subsidies" for the "largest, most profitable oil companies in the world" and help trim the deficit.

"If we are to truly address our national debt, we will all have to tighten our belts and make sacrifices - even the most wealthy and powerful among us," he wrote.

Democrats who control the committee will also hope to channel public anger at high pump prices -- which have increased around 37 percent in the last year -- as their gaze begins to drift toward the 2012 election campaign.

But the oil industry looks set to come out swinging. In a statement ahead of the hearing, ConocoPhillips described the planned tax reforms as "un-American" and "unprecedented."

Conoco CEO Jim Mulva warned any increased tax burden for oil companies would raise gasoline prices.

"Not only would increased taxes cost jobs, raise consumer prices and shrink government revenue, but they would also hamper our ability to remain competitive and reinvest in jobs," he said.

Reid and other Democrats have rejected that argument.

"If the Big Five oil companies could live with just $123 billion in profits, they could pay their fair share in taxes, help lower the deficit, and not raise the price of gasoline," he said in the letter, which was also signed by Senator Robert Menendez.

Obama's Republican foes, wary of being painted into a corner, have said that such a move amounts to a damaging tax hike that will do little to lower gasoline prices.

Witnesses at the hearing will include John Watson, chairman and chief executive of Chevron Corporation; Marvin Odum, US president of Shell Oil Company; Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America; Mulva; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corporation.

By Andrew Beatty

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