WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate's top Democrat on Thursday called for a probe of whether major oil company executives lied to Congress when they testified that their companies did not participate in a 2001 task force that prepared the Bush administration's energy policy.
The heads of Exxon Mobil Corp., BP Plc's U.S. unit,
ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp. and Shell Oil were asked to
clarify statements made at a November 9 hearing on the
industry's soaring profits. The Washington Post later reported a
White House document showed many of the companies had met with
the energy task force headed by Vice President
In the responses, released by the Senate Energy Committee on Wednesday, the companies again said they did not take part in the task force. But the companies did say they had talked about energy matters with members of the Bush administration.
The White House has refused to disclose who met with the Cheney task force in 2001, saying the meetings were confidential.
The panel eventually issued a report calling for opening more federal lands to drilling and other policies to help oil, natural gas, nuclear and coal companies expand production. Some of the recommendations were inserted into a Republican-authored energy bill that became law this year.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid urged the Justice Department to investigate if the executives lied about their companies' contacts with the task force.
``I find it deeply disturbing that energy company CEOs may have made false statements before Congress about their involvement in the secretive Cheney energy task force,'' Reid said in a statement.
``When evidence arises that some of the statements made to Congress may be false, it calls into question a witness's entire testimony and undermines Congress's constitutional role,'' he added.
Another Democrat, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, two weeks ago asked U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to investigate if the oil executives' testimony violated a federal law prohibiting false statements to Congress. Lautenberg said he had planned to discuss the matter with Gonzales by telephone on Thursday morning until Gonzales canceled the call.
``These responses are corporate double-speak that only further demonstrate the need for a criminal investigation,'' Lautenberg said, referring to the oil company statements.
Some of the companies insisted there was a difference between ``participating'' in the task force's work, and traditional lobbying of the government.
Shell Oil Co. President John Hofmeister said in a written response the company did not participate in the task force. ''However, Shell representatives did meet with the administration -- including the Vice President and his staff -- on a broad range of energy policy issues,'' the executive said.
Exxon Mobil's brief response referred the Senate committee to a November 21 press release posted on the company's Web site. That release said Exxon shared information on energy matters ``with a broad audience,'' including government officials.
ConocoPhillips Chairman J.J. Mulva said that at the time the task force was gathering information, he was the chief executive officer of Phillips Petroleum and none of his employees participated in task force meetings. ``We value greatly our opportunities to provide information, assistance and our company's perspective concerning energy policy to our nation's elected and appointed officials,'' he added.
BP said employees did meet with staff members of the task force and ``provided comments and information much like we continue to do, on a routine basis, with members of Congress and the administration.''
Chevron Chairman David O'Reilly said no employees participated in meetings convened by the task force. But, he added, Chevron staff ``routinely have and did have discussions on U.S. energy policy with officials in the administration and their staff.''