What would you ask Big Oil?
Congress is set to grill oil executives over tax breaks Tuesday. But with record gas prices and company profits, the public has more on its mind than just IRS policy.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Under the backdrop of record gas prices and record profits, Congress is set to grill executives Tuesday from the world's five biggest publicly traded oil companies.
Lawmakers are expected to focus their questions on why the cash-rich industry needs $18 billion in tax breaks over ten years with some in Congress looking to take them away and use them to subsidize renewable energy projects.
Beyond the tax breaks though, congress is sure to raise issues surrounding the industry's record profits. But it shouldn't be just lawmakers that get to ask the questions. So CNNMoney.com asked the general public and some industry-watchers: If they could ask oil executives anything, what would they ask?
"Are they going to tell the citizens why gas prices are so high?" said Maryann Mancino, who drove into Manhattan from New Jersey to attend the New York auto show.
High gas prices were also on the mind of Mark Cooper, research director at the Consumer Federation of America a consume rights watchdog.
Cooper said the industry is misusing its massive profits, underinvesting in refineries and failing to keep supplies adequate when entering the high-demand summer driving season and driving gas prices higher.
"We're talking hundreds of billion of dollars," said Cooper. "Where do all the profits go?"
Others wanted to know about Big Oil's plans for expanding alternative energy initiatives.
"I don't really feel bad about the oil companies making large profits," said Rich Landy, stepping out of a cab in Manhattan's Columbus Circle. "It's really more of a question of what we can do together to figure out how we can reduce our dependence on oil."
Environmentalists were a bit more forceful.
"They've done a great job of marketing, but a pretty poor job of showing what percent of their overall budget goes to the development of alternatives," said Deron Lovaas, an energy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Some people wanted to find ways to increase the domestic supply of oil.
"Why do we have to rely on foreign sources for petroleum," asked New Jersey resident Pete Rogers. "Why can't we do a lot of the producing ourselves?"
The industry has long argued for greater access to domestic oil and gas resources. A lot of oil lies in the waters off the East and West coasts but it's currently off limits to drilling.
The oil industry also says the tax breaks Congress is seeking to eliminate are essential to increasing domestic production, and that they're not specifically aimed at oil companies.
"These are not specialized tax breaks specifically for the oil industry," said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. "All industries get these."
Responding to questions of high gas prices Felmy said they're high largely because crude oil prices are so high - a factor Western oil companies have little control over.
Oil prices are set in a worldwide market and Western oil companies control a small fraction of the supply. Most oil comes from nationalized oil companies from countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Mexico.
Explaining what oil companies were doing with their record profits, he said the industry was either reinvesting them in exploring for more oil, or returning them to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and dividends. He noted that 41% of oil company stock is owned by pension or retirement funds.
And he said the industry has been expanding refining capacity at existing facilities to help ease the refining crunch, but that building new refineries was difficult.
"We'd love to see a new refinery, but people simply don't want a new refinery near them," he said.
Still, oil is a basic commodity that everyone must use, and the fact that it has gotten so expensive and the oil firms are making so much money from it, made one person ask if profit should be part of the equation at all.
"It seems silly, to ask people 'well, did you make the most profit you could make?'" said Brooklyn resident Mei Campanella. "Well, that's what a business does. Maybe it shouldn't be a for-profit business."
The hearing is set to begin at noon Tuesday before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Senior executives from Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500), Chevron (CVX, Fortune 500), ConocoPhillips (COP, Fortune 500), BP (BP) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA) are scheduled to appear, although no CEOs are expected to testify.