The Nation: The Biggest Rip-Off'

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So said Carter, and oilmen are furious

The ingratiating smile was gone.

The blue eyes were ice cold. The voice, normally subdued, even soporific, was suddenly brittle. Not since John Kennedy assailed steel-industry leaders 15 years ago* for abruptly raising prices had an American President so harshly attacked a band of business executives. Jimmy Carter accused U.S. oil companies of seeking "the biggest rip-off in history." of trying to "rob" American consumers, of "potential war profiteering" in the battle over energy. Declaring that "enormous amounts of money" are involved in his beleaguered energy program, the President charged that "the oil companies apparently want it all."

The outburst of presidential wrath at a televised press conference last week was no accident. It was a deliberate, carefully calculated tactic in Carter's fight to salvage his priority package of energy legislation, which is being gutted in the Senate. It also reflected his genuine fear—and that of advisers like Energy Secretary James Schlesinger—that unless Congress acts soon to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil, the inevitable consequences will be oil and gas shortages and a further mammoth, inflationary deficit in the U.S. balance of trade. The nation is now spending an appalling $45 billion a year to import oil, and the estimated trade deficit for this year is as high as $25 billion, compared with $5.9 billion last year.

Whether Carter's blast at Big Oil will be as effective in saving his mergy program as Kennedy's was in forcing a temporary rollback of steel prices remains to be seen. The attack was so free swinging that it probably amounted to overkill.

Certainly, the clash will do nothing to strengthen Carter's already tenuous links with business, which remains uncertain about the thrust and competence of his Administration and about the health of the economy. That uncertainty was mirrored on the New York Stock Exchange, where the Dow Jones industrial average dipped to a two-year low the very day of the President's press conference. The foreign exchange value of the U.S. dollar also fell to a near-record low.

Beyond the business community, however, there is a question whether Carter's blast at the oilmen will help him or hurt him with two other groups: the Senate and, even more important, the public at large. Despite repeated warnings about the energy crisis, impassioned presidential statements about energy conservation being "the moral equivalent of war" and reams of statistics about the nation's gluttonous consumption of oil and gas, nothing seems to have persuaded the public that things are that bad. But casting the oil industry as the chief villain will not necessarily persuade people that the energy crisis is "real" and that they must pay higher prices in order to conserve oil. In fact, the move could have the contrary effect on public opinion.

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