NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - CEOs from the nation's biggest oil companies sparred with lawmakers Wednesday at a Senate hearing into this year's jump in oil prices and record industry profits.
The contentious hearing comes as consumers face a jump of 50 percent or more in home heating bills this winter and gasoline prices have surged 20 percent this year.
It also came after some Democrats slammed Republicans recently for pushing through more federal subsidies for oil companies rather than trying to help consumers cope with the rise in energy prices. (Full story)
Even before the remarks got started, Democrats and Republicans were at each other over whether energy executives should have to swear to tell the truth before the panel.
Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens rejected calls by some Democrats to have the executives sworn in, saying the law already required them to tell the truth.
"There is nothing in the standing rules to require that witnesses be sworn," the Alaska Republican said. "These witnesses accepted the invitation to appear before the committee voluntarily. I shall not administer an oath today."
Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii and the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, said the CEOs should want to testify under oath.
"If I were a witness I would prefer to be sworn in so the public knows what I was about to say is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," he said. "If I were a witness I would demand to be take the oath."
The CEOs of Exxon Mobil (Research), Chevron (Research) and Conoco (Research), as well as the head of U.S. operations for overseas oil giants BP (Research) and Shell Petroleum (Research) appeared before the joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Commerce committees.
The industry's third-quarter profits jumped 62 percent to about $25.9 billion as Exxon Mobil, the nation's biggest oil company, posted the largest corporate profit in history in the quarter. Oil company's stocks are up some 40 percent from a year ago, giving big gains to shareholders.
Some members of Congress have called for a windfall profits tax, with the money distributed to lower-income consumers to help them with energy costs.
In their opening remarks, Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond and Chevron CEO David O'Reilly said their companies and others in the industry invest billions in developing new sources of energy no matter the market price of oil or the level of the industry's profits.
"Since 2002...we invested what we earned," O'Reilly said.
Several executives said that the industry faces costs of between $18 billion to $30 billion to repair damages from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Raymond argued that industry profits as a percent of revenue were in line with other industries, adding that companies had to use earnings to invest in new sources of oil.
"In politics time is measured in increments of two, four and six years," Raymond said, referring to the terms of offices for members of the House, the president and senators. "In the energy industry, time is measured in decades, based on life cycle of our projects.
"History teaches us that punitive measures hastily crafted in response to short-term rises in prices will have unintended consequences and disincentives to investment," he added.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., criticized the CEOs' pay and bonuses and urged them to make significant personal and corporate contributions to energy assistance programs.
"To my constituents, today's hearing is about shared sacrifices in tough times versus oil company greed," she said. "Working people struggle with high gas prices and your sacrifices appear to be nothing."
But none of the executives volunteered that they would make personal or corporate contributions to energy assistance programs.
"As Americans, we all feel for those who are less fortunate. We want to make sure they get the energy they need," said Jim Mulva, the CEO of Chevron. "We feel it's not a good precedent for one industry to fund a program as such. We think that's a responsibility of the government."
Raymond, questioned about reports of a one-day 24-cent a gallon increase in the wholesale price of gasoline by Exxon Mobil following Hurricane Katrina, said he couldn't comment on that instance but denied the company was price gouging.
Raymond said the company's pricing policy after Katrina was "to minimize the increase in price while at the same time recognizing that if we kept the price too low, we would quickly run out of gasoline and have shortages. It's a tough balancing act."
Inouye said that he understands why many Americans are outraged over the industry's profits.
"In the midst of pain, in the midst of suffering, the public sees headlines about record profits," he said, though he stopped short of endorsing a windfall profit tax. "I have nothing against making profits, it's what makes capitalism live," he added.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said he would oppose such a tax.
"From what I know, it didn't work before and it won't work again," he said. But he also told the executives that one of the first questions he always gets from constituents is about the price of oil and the way oil prices are set.
"I think most Americans think that someone rigs these prices and that someone is getting ripped off and it's them," he said. He said he wanted the executives to assure the country they were investing their profits in the business and working to increase production to keep prices in check.