Last May, with the price of a barrel of oil well over $100 and the American consumer furious at the price of a gallon of gas at the pump, Congress was looking for political cover.
Of course, the problem was not the absence of a congressional energy policy. No, it was the domestic oil companies that were really gauging the consumer and keeping prices high that was to blame.
As a result, the Senate Judiciary Committee would summon the top executives from the petroleum industry for a Congressional inquisition. As these executives would correctly pointed out to our astute public servants, the fact is that foreign companies and governments control the overwhelming majority of the world's oil. In fact most of the price Americans pay at the pump is the cost paid by the American oil company to acquire crude oil from someone else.
In addition, it was apparent from the hearings that if anyone is "gouging" consumers through the high price of gasoline, it is federal and state governments, not American oil companies. On average, 15% percent of the cost of gasoline at the pump goes for taxes, while only 4% represents oil company profits.
Despite these facts, Barack Obama campaigned for the Presidency on the populist message that oil company profits were too high. He promised to "make oil companies like Exxon pay a tax on their windfall profits, and use the money to help families pay for their skyrocketing energy costs and other bills." The plan was to provide a $500 per person emergency energy rebate from the windfall profits of big oil.
However, the margin of profit for oil companies never did show a profit windfall. In fact, the 8.3 percent profit margin in the gas and oil industry was pretty small in comparison with the 14.5 percent profit margin enjoyed by the electronics and appliance industry, the 18.4 percent margin for big pharma, or the 19.1 percent margin for alcohol and tobacco.
Now, just six months after the Congressional energy windfall profit tax hearings last May, the price of a barrel of oil is in sharp decline. It has already lost two thirds of its value and the bottom in the price of a barrel of crude oil is still hard to find. As a result, President-elect Barack Obama is going to break another campaign promise. There will be no windfall profit tax on big oil or consumer energy rebate plan in 2009.
The real truth is that there has not been a domestic energy policy in the United States for decades. The current domestic energy policy is only based on the hope that other countries will produce enough oil so that the price in America will not get too high.
This is because there are Congressional limitations in exploring additional domestic supply. According to the Department of the Interior, 62 percent of all on-shore federal lands are off limits to oil and gas developments, with restrictions applying to 92 percent of all federal lands. Meanwhile, alternative energy solutions are still more than a decade away.
So, eventually, the price of American energy will rise and the Senate Judiciary Committee will again call hearings for political cover. Once again they will summon all the top oil executives to assess the blame. We should remember that its just a cynical, political game in which there is no Congressional shame.