Big Oil Fan After Little Man

Rep. Joe Barton, the powerful Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, launched a bizarre investigation last week into possible antitrust violations by a major oil company. It's not ExxonMobil or Chevron for price gouging or making excessive profits.

Rep. Joe Barton, the powerful Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, launched a bizarre investigation last week into possible antitrust violations by a major oil company.

You will be surprised to learn that Barton, one of the top recipients in Congress of campaign donations from the energy industry, is not probing whether ExxonMobil or Chevron or any of the other oil giants engaged in price gouging when gasoline and heating oil costs skyrocketed the past few years.

No, the good congressman has set his sights on the only oil company that actually dared to lower its prices last year – at least for the poorest Americans.

In a Feb. 15 letter to Citgo, the Houston-based company owned by the Venezuelan government, Barton demanded that company officials produce by tomorrow all records, minutes, logs, e-mails and even desk calendars related to Citgo’s novel program of supplying discounted heating oil to low-income communities in the United States.

The Citgo program, which kicked off late last year in Massachusetts and the South Bronx, provides oil at discounts as high as 60% off market price.

Since its inception the program has expanded to low-income communities in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island. Local politicians, desperate for ways to reduce energy costs for their constituents, have welcomed it with open arms.

Here in New York, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel will soon announce an expansion of the Citgo program into upper Manhattan.

All of this unexpected corporate philanthropy has made Barton and other House Republicans furious. Citgo’s oil-for-the-poor program, after all, was the brainchild of Hugo Chavez, the fiery populist president of Venezuela who has become one of the most strident opponents of the Bush administration.

“The bellicose Venezuelan decided to meddle in American energy policy, and we think it might prove instructive to know how,” Larry Neal, deputy staff director for Barton’s committee, said yesterday.

Barton’s letter lists a bunch of questions he wants Citgo to answer, including “how and why were the particular beneficiaries of this program selected” and whether the program “runs afoul of any U.S. laws, including but not limited to, antitrust laws.”

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, is flabbergasted by Barton’s investigation.

“The Republicans are on another planet when it comes to energy policy,” Markey said.

Instead of doing something about skyrocketing oil prices, Markey said, the Republicans are probing “a charitable donation of heating oil to relieve the suffering of a few thousand American families.”

Barton, however, is not as nutty as he sounds.

He is well aware that Citgo’s limited discount program will have no influence on American energy policy. But it has created a huge public embarrassment for Barton’s friends in the major oil companies, all of which recently announced record-shattering profits for 2005.

ExxonMobil, for example, reported $36 billion in earnings last year. That’s the largest profit ever recorded by any company in the history of modern commerce. It works out to an average of $98 million in profit for every day of last year.

Oil profits have gotten so obscene that a lot of Americans are getting fed up, and pressure is mounting on Congress to do something.

That’s where Barton comes in. He’s the closest thing on Capitol Hill to a mouthpiece for Big Oil.

During the last election cycle, he was second only to fellow Texan Tom DeLay in the amount of oil industry contributions. During two decades in the House, Barton has raked in nearly $2 million in campaign donations from oil and electric companies.

He is such a rabid defender of the energy industry that when a group of scientists issued a damning study last year about the growing danger of global warming, Barton immediately launched one of his shotgun investigations. He fired off letters to each of the scientists and demanded that they list all the sources of their funding and provide him with their research data and notes.

Now Barton is after Citgo, the oil company that dared to do the unthinkable – lower oil prices for poor Americans.

Earth to Barton, call home.

Source: New York Daily News