Oil giants' charm offensive as US politicians threaten action

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The oil industry is to channel millions of dollars to US Congressional election campaigns this year as part of a desperate plan to squash calls for a windfall tax on their record profits.

Industry giants including Exxon Mobil, BP and ChevronTexaco have faced huge criticism with petrol prices soaring past $3 a gallon. They fear political pressures will intensify as November's mid-term elections loom.

Executives have also been trying to get their message directly to the public, saying pump prices reflect a global oil price that is out of their control.

The industry has spent an estimated $20m (£11m) this year on media adverts, and Exxon's chief executive, Rex Tillerson, took the extraordinary step last week of appearing on NBC's breakfast-time Today programme to defend the sector.

He said Exxon and others were using the proceeds of $70 oil to boost refining capacity and launch new exploration projects. But he was unapologetic about his company's $8bn profit for the first quarter - more than $1,000 per second.

Mr Tillerson said: "We work for the shareholders, and the investors who own our stock are over two million Americans. Our job is to go out and make the most money for those people so their pensions are secure so that they see the benefits of our work. We're in the business to make money."

The costs of political donations and other lobbying efforts by the biggest oil companies this year are forecast to far outstrip last year's $30m.

Many Democrats are pressing for a windfall tax on the industry. So far, legislative moves have been limited to a Bill that outlaws "price gouging" - or collusion to raise prices.

But the industry is concerned that the issue will become even more prominent if oil prices do not subside before the driving season, when American families fill up the tank for summer holiday road trips.