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Energy Industry Seeks Dialogue With US Candidates

Leaders of the US energy industry met in Houston Thursday for what was billed as a presidential summit on energy issues, but they drew only one candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, energy experts say more dialogue between politicians and the industry is crucial if the nation is to avoid a crisis in coming years.

The original idea of the Greater Houston Partnership organizers was to hold a debate between presidential candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties about energy policy. But, in the end, only Senator Clinton stopped by, and there was no debate.

Clinton and Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama have suggested in their campaign speeches that big oil companies resist changes in energy policy because of the huge profits they are reaping from high crude prices. That view is also prevalent among Democrats in the House of Representatives who supported a bill passed this week to rescind tax breaks for five big oil companies.

Speaking to VOA, the President of Shell Oil Company, John Hofmeister, said politicians need to learn more about the challenges facing this industry.

"All Americans, including our presidential candidates, should realize that, particularly in the short term, the high cost of energy is due to not enough supply trying to chase the demand. If we do not get more supply, that means more oil and gas, in the short term, then the price is going to go higher and the oil companies do not set the price of crude, it is set on the world market," he said.

The President and Chief Operating Officer of Marathon Oil, Clarence Cazalot, says people who blame the oil companies when prices go up need to understand that these companies, as big as they may be, have little control over supply and demand.

"We are engaged in a global competition for our energy. In fact, while we are referred to as Big Oil, the American oil companies only control six to eight percent of the world's oil. That is not big oil. The major oil resources in the world are controlled by other nations and their national oil companies," he said.

Cazalot says the International Energy Agency has estimated global demand for energy is going to increase by 50 percent in the next 30 years, driven in great part by an increase in the global population from the current six and a half billion people to over eight billion people. These new people, he says, will also want to use energy.

Energy experts and industry leaders agree that the price of oil reflects increased demand from India and China as well as the difficulty of increasing supply. Companies face the increased expense of finding and extracting crude oil from the ground and sometimes contentious dealings with the foreign governments who control the reserves.

Many participants in the Houston forum expressed disappointment that Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidates John McCain and Mike Huckabee did not attend, even though all three have been in the area campaigning in recent days.

Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, who represents one Houston's districts, told VOA this was a missed opportunity for political leaders and energy leaders to sit down and discuss this vital issue.

"Frankly, I am disappointed that we did not have all four candidates here because there has not been, to my knowledge, a definitive discussion of energy and the direction the nation will take," she said.

But she defended the Congressional vote to end tax breaks for the largest oil companies and urged oil company executives to cooperate more with elected officials to form an energy policy.

"The policy makers must be engaged, not one time, not around a particular bill, but ongoing. Out of that long-term engagement comes the kind of balanced legislation that can be responsible to the needs of this industry," she said.

Energy company executives say they are willing to work with Congress on developing a comprehensive energy policy. But they say votes in Congress that target specific companies and threaten to take away their subsidies do more harm than good. They say the only way to reduce energy prices and ensure a reliable supply of energy for the United States is for all parties to sit down together and develop a realistic policy that takes all factors into consideration.