Senators ask Big Oil to help poor on fuel costs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. senators on Tuesday asked big oil companies to voluntarily contribute to a fund that would help low-income consumers pay for this winter’s high heating bills and transportation costs later this summer.

Robert Malone (R), Chairman and President of BP America speaks among four other oil company executives at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 1, 2008. The executives (L-R), Senior Vice President of Exxon Mobil Stephen Simon, President of Shell Oil John Hofmeister, Vice Chairman of Chevron Peter Robertson and Executive Vice President of ConocoPhillips John Lowe joined Malone in testimony at the House select committee hearing on energy independence and global warming. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island said record energy prices have been a windfall for big oil companies and they need to share some of their profits with consumers who are in need.

“As you well know, the rise of commodity prices, most notably petroleum, has certainly been a significant factor in the slowdown of our economy and placed a considerable burden on working families and seniors,” the lawmakers said in a letter to the American Petroleum Institute, the main trade group for big oil companies.

The five biggest oil companies earned a record $123 billion in profits last year.

The lawmakers asked API to reconsider creating an assistance program that would be funded by the group’s members to help consumers cope with rising energy costs.

They made a similar request to API members in October 2005, but were turned down. At that time oil prices were just under $60 a barrel, compared with current costs of around $101.

The trade group responded at the time that it supported full funding for an existing government program that helps poor families pay their heating and cooling bills.

API said it still believes more money from Congress for the current programs is the best way to go.

However, the senators said a new voluntary program funded by the oil companies could cover the cost of weatherizing homes to reduce energy use and provide more fuel efficient transportation.

“This winter it was exceptionally difficult for low-income Americans to maintain a basic level of heat in their homes, and this summer is likely to cause additional hardships,” the lawmakers said in their letter to API.

“We believe that this assistance and effort would provide critical support at a very desperate time and would be greatly appreciated by the American people,” they said.

The lawmakers’ request came as executives from the five biggest oil companies, including ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, testified on Tuesday at a congressional hearing on high energy costs and billions of dollars in record industry profits.

The executives said their companies were not at fault and said consumers should blame high crude oil prices for pushing up gasoline costs.

Editing by Walter Bagley