WASHINGTON — Anger over skyrocketing gasoline prices is turning to fightback with more than 570,768 people signing an online petition to the U.S. Senate demanding that they approve a bill that makes gasoline price gouging a federal crime.

The petition, initiated by the online grassroots group, MoveOn.org, cites gasoline prices zooming well above $3 per gallon “and no sign of declining anytime soon. … The American people have had enough and its time for a change.” The petition states, “Gasoline price gouging should be made a federal crime before the summer price increases hurt more American families.”

MoveOn.org warned that “Big Oil is fighting new legislation tooth and nail, and the Senate is voting on an anti-price gouging bill in just two weeks. If we can reach 750,000 names, we’ll hand deliver the petition to Congress to remind them that we’re watching. … Big Oil will stop at nothing to protect their profits and they’ve got lobbyists all over Capitol Hill.”

The House approved language sought by the oil companies that makes it far harder to enforce the anti-price gouging regulations. The Senate, the MoveOn.org statement continues, “needs to hear even louder from us not to cave and weaken the bill.”

Tyson Slocum, energy program director of the grassroots consumer group Public Citizen, told the World in a telephone interview that oil company profits are at “windfall levels” amounting to a huge “transfer of wealth” from the pockets of working people to the coffers of the rich.

The people, he added, “need to contact their senators and demand that they stand up for consumers and hold the oil companies accountable.” Since George Bush became president in 2001, he added, “the top five oil companies in the United States have recorded profits of $464 billion through the first quarter of 2007, with Exxon Mobil leading the way with profits of $158.5 billion.”

Slocum pointed out that none of the oil companies are investing any of these enormous profits in programs that benefit motorists or the public at large. Exxon Mobil, for example, spent $37.2 billion last year buying back its own stock and paying out dividends rather than investing it in measures that protect the environment.

In recent testimony to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Slocum said the profit margin for U.S. oil refiners has shot up 158 percent since 1999. A decade ago the top five refiners controlled one-third of U.S. capacity. By 2005, because of mergers, that increased to 55 percent control for the top five.

“The energy bill that President Bush signed in 2005 does nothing to address the U.S. factors that are driving oil and gas prices to record highs,” Slocum said. “Congress and the White House explicitly rejected efforts to improve fuel economy standards for our cars and trucks.” Instead, he told Congress, the energy bill lavished more than $34 billion in new tax giveaways on the oil companies.

Slocum told the hearing that Public Citizen advocates repeal of all existing oil company tax breaks and closing loopholes that allow Big Oil to avoid paying adequate royalties on oil pumped from public lands. A windfall profits tax should be imposed, he said, “dedicating the new revenue to financing clean energy, energy efficiency and mass transit.”

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