NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
CEOs from the nation's biggest oil companies face a grilling in Congress Wednesday before a joint Senate committee hearing on energy prices and record industry profits.
The hearing, before members of both the Senate Energy and Commerce committees, will hear from CEO's of the nation's three largest oil companies -- Exxon Mobil (Research), Chevron (Research), ConocoPhillips (Research), as well as the heads of the U.S. units of BP (Research) and Shell Petroleum (Research).
The five will be forced to defend strong industry profits that followed the spike in gasoline prices in recent months. The executives could face hostile questioning from Republican lawmakers, who are usually their allies on Capitol Hill.
The profits of the oil and gas companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose about 62 percent in the third quarter to about $25.9 billion, excluding special items, compared to a year ago, according to earnings tracker First Call. Exxon Mobil reported the largest profit in U.S. corporate history during the quarter.
That jump in profits followed year-over-year growth of 42 percent for the industry in the second quarter, according to First Call, and full-year profit growth forecast to be up 49 percent. And the profits are expected to disappear any time soon. Analysts surveyed by First Call expect industry earnings to be up another 13 percent in 2006.
Oil industry stocks have retreated about 11 percent from the highs reached in September when oil and gas prices were near record highs. But even with that retreat in stock and oil prices, the Amex oil index still shows a nearly 40 percent rise for oil stocks over the last 12 months.
The executives testimony happens as millions of Americans face sharply higher home heating bills this winter. One Republican set to hear testimony and ask questions, Olympia Snowe of Maine, called on the major oil companies to voluntarily contribute to a federal program that helps low-income families pay part of their winter heating bills.
"It is deeply concerning and, frankly, outrageous that oil companies are boasting record-breaking profits," said a statement from Snowe, a member of the Commerce committee. "These large energy companies simply must not unfairly and overwhelmingly benefit at the expense of our nation's citizens, for whom heating fuel is a basic necessity of life."
The heating sticker shock will come despite a recent retreat in oil prices in world markets. Gasoline prices have also retreated in recent weeks.
A survey Sunday by analyst Trilby Lundberg found the average price at the pump fell to $2.43, about 20 cents a gallon below their pre-Katrina level. Oil futures have been hovering near or below the $60 a barrel benchmark in recent days.
The committee will also hear from Federal Trade Commission chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, as well as state attorneys general from New Jersey, South Carolina and Arizona.
The AG's from New Jersey and South Carolina, the former a Democrat, the latter a Republican, have both brought price gouging suits against oil companies and gas station owners since the post-Hurricane Katrina price spike.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, has proposed an anti-gouging law in that state.
Even some Republican leaders have been critical of oil industry profits reported in the third quarter, and one, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, said last month that Congress should consider reinstituting an excess profit tax on oil companies, with some of the proceeds going to help consumers pay for their higher fuel bills.
Democrat Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has proposed such a "windfall profit" tax, but so far has yet to get any Republican co-sponsors for his proposal.
For more on the chances of a windfall profit tax being imposed on the oil industry, click here.