WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that taxing enormous oil industry profits is not the way to calm Americans' anxieties about prices at the gas pump, and that his ''inclination and instincts" are that major oil companies are not intentionally overcharging drivers.
Bush's remarks suggested the former Texas oilman probably would not take harsh action against oil companies, despite public anger about the rising cost of fuel. Gasoline is averaging $2.92 a gallon across the country, up 69 cents from a year ago, according to AAA's daily fuel gauge report.
With politicians concerned the issue could tilt what are expected to be close midterm elections this fall, the president and many in Congress have been rushing to offer solutions, most of which would offer little immediate relief.
Chevron Corp. reported yesterday that its first-quarter profit soared 49 percent to $4 billion, joining the procession of US oil companies to report colossal earnings. Two of Chevron's biggest rivals, ConocoPhillips and
Combined, the three oil companies made $15.7 billion during the first three months of the year. That's 17 percent more than the trio made during the same time last year when they recorded a combined profit of nearly $64 billion for all of 2005.
Some Democrats have viewed this week's announcement of huge oil profits as a chance to renew their push for a windfall profits tax. Although a few Republicans, including Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have said the idea ought to be examined, Bush and most GOP lawmakers strongly oppose it.
''The temptation in Washington is to tax everything," the president said in a wide-ranging news conference.
Instead, Bush called on Congress to ease regulations that make it difficult to expand the nation's refining capacity. He also urged oil companies to devote their profits into finding and producing more energy, such as by building natural gas pipelines or pursuing renewable energy sources.
Three days ago, the president announced a series of steps, including calling on his administration to investigate possible price gouging. But he acknowledged yesterday that he thinks it's probably not happening.
''I have no evidence that there's any rip-off taking place," Bush said. ''It's the role of the Federal Trade Commission to assure me that my inclination and instincts is right."
The president has supported the rolling back of some oil industry tax breaks that were enacted with his support just eight months ago. Rescinding the breaks are part of a broader gas price-relief plan offered by the Senate GOP leadership, but House Republicans signaled this week they won't go along.
Bush called reporters to the Rose Garden to trumpet recent positive economic reports. But, aware that high gas prices are one of the reasons that good news hasn't sunk in with much of the public, he acknowledged fuel costs threaten to derail economic progress -- and used a driving metaphor to make the point that tax cuts are the key to continued strength.
''With gas prices on the minds of Americans, we need to keep our foot on the pedal of this strong economy," the president said.
The oil companies have emphasized that they make far less money on each dollar of sales than many other industries.
Taken together, Exxon, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips made a first-quarter profit of $8.19 on every $100 in sales. In contrast, Internet bellwethers Google Inc.,