WASHINGTON (AP) — A sharply divided House on Thursday approved legislation aimed at cracking down on alleged price hikes by oil companies and other energy producers as pump prices continue to soar.
A bill backed by House Democrats would give President Joe Biden the power to declare an energy emergency that would make it illegal to raise gasoline and home energy prices in an “excessive” or exploitative way. The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission to punish companies that engage in price gouging and adds a new unit to the FTC to monitor fuel markets.
“At a time when people across the country are feeling the pinch at the gas pump, Congress must do everything in its power to reduce costs for American families,” said U.S. Representative Kim Schrier, D -Wash., who co-sponsored the bill.
She called it “maddening” that the gasoline price spikes were “occurring at the same time as gas and oil companies were making record profits and taking advantage of international crises to make a profit.” This must stop.″
The measure was approved, 217-207. Republicans unanimously opposed the bill, along with four Democrats. It now goes to the Senate, where a similar bill faces strong odds in a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.
The focus on price gouging comes as gasoline prices averaged $4.59 a gallon on Thursday — 49 cents a gallon higher than a month ago and $1.55 higher than a year ago, according to AAA.
ExxonMobil, Chevron and other major oil companies reported increased profits totaling more than $40 billion in the first quarter of the year, a fact Democrats repeatedly cited in a room debate. Many companies spend billions on stock buybacks and dividend payments to investors.
“Big Oil is inflating prices for families because they can,” said U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-California, another co-sponsor. “Enough is enough.”
Republicans and industry groups called the bill misguided, saying there was no evidence of price hikes. Oil is a global commodity and prices are set on the global market.
Gas prices rose late last year amid supply chain issues and rising demand as the economy recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, but prices have increased more and more since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24. The United States has banned imports of Russian oil and other countries are seeking alternatives to Russian energy, driving up prices.
Biden, aware of the political stakes, has pledged to do everything he can to ease “the pain at the pump for American families,” including ordering the release of record amounts of oil from the country’s strategic reserve.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden “welcomes any ideas aimed at protecting consumers and ensuring that oil companies don’t profit from the war of (Russian President Vladimir ) Putin and compete fairly.”
Republicans say the answer to rising gas prices is to increase production here in the United States.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House’s No. 2 Republican, called the bill Democrats’ attempt “to distract and shift blame onto the government’s self-inflicted energy and inflation crisis.” ‘administration”.
Scalise called the bill “the socialist pricing system that hurts small businesses and consumers the most.” He accused Democrats of “politicizing” the FTC by giving the commission “broad powers based on undefined parameters that will allow it to usurp market forces and set government-controlled gasoline prices.”
U.S. Representative Chris Pappas, DN.H., said the bill was needed. “The price of crude oil fell last month, but the prices consumers pay at the pump continued to rise. We need to end this corporate profiteering and provide relief to families,” he said.
The American Exploration and Production Council, an advocacy group that represents independent oil and gas producers, called the bill counterproductive. “Energy prices are determined by supply and demand, not by false accusations of ‘price gouging’ driven by the upcoming election,” said Anne Bradbury, CEO of the group.
The House vote comes as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said she would release a long-delayed five-year plan that allows the Interior to drive new offshore oil and gas lease sales. The current plan expires on June 30 and administration officials have not said when or if a replacement will be released, even though they have canceled three planned offshore lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast. from Alaska.
Haaland told the Senate Energy Committee that the new plan will be made public by June 30. The plan does not issue specific leases or authorize any drilling projects.
“As we take this next step, we will follow the science and the law, as we always do,” Haaland said Thursday, promising a “robust and transparent review process that includes input from states, the public and tribes”.
The Biden administration has come under pressure to increase U.S. crude production as fuel prices soar due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Biden is also facing pressure from Democrats and environmental groups urging him to do more to fight climate change, even as his climate and clean energy legislative proposals remain stalled in a sharply divided Congress. .
US Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who chairs the energy panel and plays an outsized role on energy policy, said Thursday that “even though we see Russia waging a war made possible by insecurity energy in Europe, this administration has made its opposition to domestic oil and gas production crystal clear.
Manchin said he supports a pause on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters announced by Biden shortly after he took office in January 2021. Last summer, he told Haaland, “time for a break had come and gone”.
Now, 16 months after the break was announced, “we still don’t have any new leases,” Manchin said. “I’m sorry to say that it has become crystal clear that the ‘pause’ is in fact a ban.”
Interior proceeded with an offshore lease sale last fall, in response to a court order, but the sale was later overturned by a federal judge.
The administration has scheduled land lease sales next month in eight mostly Western states. However, the authorities reduced the amount of land offered for drilling and increased the royalty rates charged to energy companies by 50%.
The four Democrats who opposed the House bill are Representatives Lizzie Fletcher of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Kathleen Rice of New York.