Energy and the Politicians

Senator Henry Jackson
Senator Henry Jackson; drawing by David Levine

Are the nation’s energy policies a potent “issue” in this year’s presidential campaign and in other electoral struggles? More specifically, are the calls for some form of reorganization of the oil industry—voiced by no fewer than eight presidential candidates, including George Wallace—going to form an important or a merely ornamental part of each Democratic candidate’s vote-getting equipment? Is, indeed, the democratic process this year going to affect the energy policies of the United States in any way?

It is, after all, only three years since the embargo by oil-producing countries propelled such issues to the forefront of political debate. It is only two years since “Project Independence” proclaimed the government’s official policy to be one of freedom from foreign sources of oil. And during the last three years public indignation has swelled against the oil companies. Opinion polls have attested to the mood of cynicism and hostility; extensive self-serving campaigns by such companies as Mobil and Exxon have confirmed it. Belabored with accusations of profiteering, of complicity with the oil-producing countries, and indeed of either manufacturing or falsely compounding the “crisis,” the oil companies have recently been shaken once again by disclosures of their bribe-giving both at home and abroad.

The current status of Project Independence can be adduced from the news that this March, for the first time, imports of crude oil exceeded domestic production. Public indignation about energy matters—and the pronouncements of the candidates about them—varies in intensity. Even so, during the last few months the long campaign to break up the oil companies gained momentum and is now being seriously debated in the Congress. Legislation assailing the industry is proceeding in both the Senate and the House, where there are investigations of virtually every sector of the energy industry—including the production and distribution of coal and natural gas, control over uranium and coal, the institutions that finance the industry.

Not since the great battle to break up the public utility holding companies in the 1930s has there been such a confrontation. It is true that the oil industry has come under attack before. In the 1930s Senators Borah and Gillett argued for breaking up the industry, and their campaign gathered strength from the reports of the Temporary National Economic Committee set up by President Roosevelt. These reports showed that the major companies owned vast amounts of oil reserves and that indeed six companies controlled nearly half of basic refining capacity; also that the major companies had worked together to force the independents out of business by denying them access to the pipelines owned by the majors. The campaign by the two senators culminated in a case launched by the government before World War II to break up the industry.

During the early 1950s the Federal Trade Commission issued its famous report exposing the ways in which the international oil cartel conspired to control the rates of…

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