Oil company executives testifying before a Senate committee Nov. 9 arrogantly rejected any suggestion that the federal government should act to limit their profits and provide relief for consumers. The hearing was carefully orchestrated by the Senate leadership to shield the industry, and the Republican Party itself, from rising public anger in the face of soaring gas and home heating prices, accompanied by unprecedented profits for the oil corporations.

Energy Committee Chairman Peter Domenici (R-N.M.), ever respectful to Big Business, rejected demands to have the executives testify under oath.

Several Democratic senators called for a windfall profits tax, but ConocoPhillips chairman James Mulva said of his company’s $3.8 billion profit last quarter — an 89 percent increase over a year earlier — “We do not consider that a windfall.”

Republicans took a gentler approach to the industry. Domenici dismissed a windfall profits tax but acknowledged that “the oil companies owe the country an explanation,” while Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the corporations to voluntarily donate 10 percent of their profits to the federal low-income heating assistance program.

The very fact that public hearings on oil profits are being held is a people’s victory of sorts under an administration so totally dominated by that industry. But people across the country face the immediate need to be able to afford fuel to get to work and keep their homes warm this winter. That urgency demands a higher level of action than “an explanation” or “voluntary donations.”

A windfall profits tax to recapture some of the $96 billion oil companies are expected to make this year is a necessary start. Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) are expected to introduce such legislation.

But this year’s energy crisis is not a one-time event. Without government intervention, high energy prices will be the new permanent reality. As Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond sarcastically commented to the Wall Street Journal, “Welcome to the world.”

This industry, so crucial to the environment, the economy and the well being of the nation’s working people, must be brought under public control, and ultimately, public ownership.