Top U.S. oil executives have defended their companies' record profits as U.S. gasoline prices rose to an average of about $1 per liter. The official's comments came in testimony to a Senate panel Wednesday on a day that crude oil prices closed in on $134 a barrel. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused U.S. oil companies of making exorbitant profits "on the backs" of hard-working families.

Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said firms have made $36 billion in profits in the first three months of this year.

Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, spoke directly to the five oil executives called to testify.

"Your industry has no problem doubling your profits, tripling your profits, even when prices at the pump go crazy," he said.  "You have no problem keeping up with your increasing profits.  It just doesn't seem fair, guys.  It just doesn't seem fair."

The officials were quick to defend their companies.  John Lowe is executive vice president of Conoco Philips.

"U.S. oil companies should be viewed as the key to the energy solution, not the scapegoats, but as assets in this global energy race," he said.

Others, including Stephen Simon, senior vice president of Exxon Mobil, said their firms' profits are invested back into the company.

"Our profitability in absolute terms is large, but it must be viewed in the context of the massive scale of our industry and our dependence on high earnings in the current up-cycle to sustain the huge investments required over the longer term," he said.

The oil company officials blamed soaring crude prices on rising global demand.  They urged lawmakers to end restrictions on exploration and production of oil in the United States.

Robert Malone is chairman and president of BP America:

"This nation should be encouraging production of all forms of energy, especially oil and gas," he said. 

Peter Robertson, vice chairman of the board of Chevron Corporation, criticized proposed legislation that would revoke tax breaks to major oil companies.

"Punitive measures that will weaken us in the face of national competition are the wrong solution at this critical point in our history," he said.  "Such measures will only increase our dependence on foreign supplies of energy while resources at home are untapped."

The oil company officials took issue with another bill, passed by the House this week, but awaiting Senate action, that would allow the United States to sue the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on antitrust and price fixing grounds. 

Critics say the measure could prompt a backlash from oil producers, and President Bush has vowed to veto the measure.