Five Companies Control Half of Domestic Oil Production

*** P R E S S R E L E A S E ***

For Immediate Release: March 10, 2004
Contact: Tyson Slocum (202) 454-5191;
Erica Hartman (202) 454-5174

Industry Consolidation, Uncompetitive Behavior
Contributing to Rising Gas Prices

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Gas prices are rising because of uncompetitive
actions by a handful of mega-companies, not because of environmental
regulations, Public Citizen said today.
Forecasts say that gas prices will reach historic highs this spring,
with the national average exceeding $1.80 a gallon, the highest prices
(adjusted for inflation) since 1985. Already in Texas, prices are
inching near $3 a gallon.
The Bush administration blames environmental rules for causing strains
on refining capacity, prompting shortages and driving up prices. But in
reality it is uncompetitive actions by a handful of companies with large
control over our nation's gas markets that is directly causing these
high prices, said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical
Mass Energy and Environment Program.
Domestic refining and transportation costs account for one-third of the
price of a gallon of gasoline -- costs that are largely determined by
the major oil companies operating in the United States. This share of
company costs tacked on to the price of gasoline has been increasing. In
November 2000, crude oil prices were at the same level they are today
(more than $36 per barrel), but retail gas prices today ($1.78 per
gallon) are 17 percent higher than they were then ($1.55 per gallon).
Most of this difference has been realized in higher profits from the new
mega-companies that have merged since 2000.
The top five companies in America -- ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco,
ConocoPhillips, BP-Amoco-Arco and Shell -- now control half of all
domestic oil production, half of all domestic refinery capacity, and
nearly two-thirds of the retail market.
"The fact that a handful of companies control half of the domestic oil
production is particularly significant given that the United States is
the third largest oil producer in the world," Hauter said. "It's no
wonder that the market leader, ExxonMobil, posted after-tax profits of
$21.5 billion in 2003. When you control the market, you can manipulate
the system to ensure enormous profits."
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission concluded in March 2001 that oil
companies had intentionally withheld supplies of gasoline from the
market as a tactic to drive up prices -- all as a "profit-maximizing
strategy." These actions, while costing consumers billions of dollars in
overcharges, are perfectly legal.
The approval of recent mergers has allowed these large oil companies to
push smaller, independent refining companies out of business for the
sole purpose of limiting refining capacity at the same time that
environmental regulations necessitated more refining capacity. Internal
company documents describe the aggressive strategies employed by the
large oil companies to shut down refineries with capacity of more than
830,000 barrels of oil a day -- more than enough to meet environmental
regulations if these were open today.
"If it is so clear that America's gasoline markets are uncompetitive,
then why haven't these companies been investigated?" said Public Citizen
President Joan Claybrook. "We believe that millions of dollars in
campaign contributions have purchased immunity from congressional and
presidential scrutiny."
Collectively, the oil and gas industry has spent more than $270 million
to lobby Congress and the White House and provide cash to federal
election campaigns since the 2000 election cycle. Of this amount, $66
million was given to federal candidates running for office, with 80
percent of those contributions going to Republicans. That makes this
industry among the largest and most partisan of industries.
The oil and natural gas industry has spent an average of $50 million a
year lobbying Congress and the White House since 2000, according to an
analysis of lobby registration forms filed with Congress. The top five
companies, including the American Petroleum Institute, account for half
of all these lobbying expenditures.
The energy bill pending in Congress does nothing to address
uncompetitive activities by large oil companies. Instead, it rewards
them with billions of dollars in new subsidies in the form of tax breaks
for new production and other perks.
"Giving tax breaks to ExxonMobil, which just posted $21.5 billion in
profit, takes a lot of gall," Hauter said. "We need a real energy
policy, one that emphasizes conservation and renewable fuels, not one
that continues to pad the pockets of giant companies and allows them to
continue soaking consumers."
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization
based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit


Europe's Ancient "Magic" Plants: New Drug Sources?
by James Owen

Two Belgian botanists have completed a piece of detective work to rival that of super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, their fictional fellow countryman.
Marcel De Cleene, associate professor at Ghent University in Belgium, and fellow ethnobotanist, Marie Claire Lejeune, combed thousands of sources, including old travelers' tales, fairytales, Greek classical writings, and medieval herbals, to produce the Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe.
The result of a 20-year investigation, the English-language edition has now been published. It represents the first complete survey of the part played by European plants in agriculture, folklore, magic, religion, and herbal medicine.
Experts in how different peoples and cultures use indigenous plants, the field known as ethnobotany, believe the work could prove a catalyst for medical breakthroughs, putting scientists on the trail of new, life-saving drugs.
Michael Heinrich, head of the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy in London, England, said that while European ethnobotanists have focused on the rain forests of South America, Africa, and Asia in their search for new medicinal plants, those on their own doorstep have been largely ignored.
"The most exciting aspect of the compendium is the region it covers. It's amazing how little we know about the use of such resources within Europe," he said
Much else has been forgotten about Europe's ritual plants—even those we still use today. The Christmas tree, for example, harks back to a northern Germanic fertility festival and feast of the dead (Yuletide) when greenery was hung up in the home to warn off evil spirits.
Celtic Roots
Halloween and those ghoulish, carved pumpkins have their roots in an ancient Celtic festival. While the burning of incense, widespread in Roman Catholic churches today, was frowned upon by early Christians because heathen Greeks and Romans used incense (from frankincense trees) to communicate with their own gods.
Compendium author De Cleene said: "Western man is probably baffled by this use of plants in religion, as he is no longer aware of the crucial part nature played in pre-Christian religions."
He provides the following grisly example of just how seriously ancient Europeans took their plant-life. Germanic tribes punished those caught stripping bark from a sacred tree by cutting out their navel and nailing it to the damaged trunk. The accused were then made to walk around in ever-decreasing circles until their intestines wrapped the trunk.
De Cleene added: "The ancient magical reputation of plants still lingers on in present-day popular beliefs and medicine, in traditions, and even in common expressions"—like touch wood. "However, we hardly ever give this a moment's thought today, as we are no longer aware of its origin."
This is true of many old medicinal plants like the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), an herb which grows around the Mediterranean.
In antiquity, the mandrake's root and berry were used widely as an anesthetic. Over time its painkilling properties gave the plant a magical aura. By the Middle Ages, it was used purely for magical purposes. Worn as an amulet, it was supposed to bring wealth, or make soldiers invisible to the enemy. This belief persisted into the 20th century; German troops still wore mandrake during the Second World War.
By the 1960s, technological advances saw mass produced, chemically-synthesized drugs become the chief source of medicines in the industrialized West. And while there's been renewed interest in alternative, herbal remedies over the past decade—reflected in a market growing by 10 percent each year in Europe and the U.S.—Heinrich says this trend isn't reflected in research by major drug companies.
Pharmaceutical Companies
Heinrich believes the reason why is that pharmaceutical companies tend to screen the most easily collected and produced source material (i.e., synthetic compounds) for potential new drugs. The typical process involves analysis of chemical compounds for pharmacological properties, which allows up to a million compounds to be screened in just a few months.
This poses a big problem for ethnobotanists, according to Heinrich. While an ethnobotanist might spend a year working in Mexico to identify 50 promising plant extracts, pharmaceutical industry researchers tend to be interested in collections that have at least 10,000 or 100,000 compounds or extracts, Heinrich said.
Despite this, some ritual European plants have already found their way into mainstream medicine. Ancient Egyptians chewed willow bark to relieve fever and headaches, while the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-375 B.C.) prescribed willow bark for rheumatic pains. Modern scientists discovered the bark contains salicylic acid, which in turn led to the invention of aspirin. Today, some 100 billion aspirin tablets are produced worldwide each year.
For Heinrich, this is a classic example of how science can bridge the gap between ancient plant lore and modern pharmacology.
He cites other examples. Galanthamine, first isolated from the Caucasian snowdrop (Galanthus woronowii), is at the forefront in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. An extract from the European yew tree (Taxus baccata) is being used to treat cancerous tumors.
In Heinrich's view, reconnecting with Europe's ritual plants could be extremely good for our health.

from National Geographic News 1/21/04 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0121_040121_medicinalplants.html