By Chris Baltimore
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democrats turned up the heat on the White House on Friday to act in the face of record-high U.S gasoline pump prices.
The same day, the Senate Energy Committee set a September 8 hearing on what's behind the prices, which hit a record $2.55 a gallon this week.
That's about 68 cents higher than just a year ago and the biggest weekly increase on record, which has triggered fears that high energy costs could hurt U.S. economic growth.
Lawmakers admit there is no short-term fix to pain at the pump, but are nervous about political fall-out. Gasoline prices are sure to be a hot topic when Congress returns from its recess next month.
Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, warned this week that high gasoline prices have stunted U.S. consumer spending.
"Today's gasoline prices are taking a severe toll on Americans' pocketbooks," said Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, energy panel chairman. "Consumers are anxious."
The hearing will focus on global oil demand, refinery capacity constraints and the impact of futures market speculation on energy prices, Domenici said.
The panel said it has not set its witnesses.
Meanwhile, Democrats urged the White House to act.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Friday said the Bush administration should require U.S. oil companies to disclose their fuel pricing policies and production costs.
In a letter to the White House, Reid also said the Federal Trade Commission should investigate instances where a state's retail prices rise 20 percent in any given week "to determine if the price of gasoline is being artificially manipulated."
Past FTC probes into U.S. oil company pricing policies have found no sign of abuse.
"This one has already being done," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "The FTC and the Justice Department have been keenly watching for this type of activity for the past two years."
Duffy also said that Democrats' attempts to prevent oil drilling in the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, have kept supplies tight.
"Commonsense steps we've tried to take, like increasing domestic oil production by allowing drilling in a small portion of ANWR, have been blocked by Democrats for years," Duffy said.
Separately, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said the White House should ask oil companies for a voluntary, temporarily freeze on prices that they charge gasoline distributors.
Duffy said that price controls in any form are "terribly toxic to the economy" but added he had not seen the specific proposal.
The American Petroleum Institute, the biggest industry lobbyist, said U.S. oil companies are not benefiting unduly from high energy prices, and said that global crude oil shortages and oil prices near $70 a barrel are to blame.
It costs about $2 a gallon for U.S. refiners to turn crude oil into gasoline before transportation and distribution costs are added, said John Felmy, an API economist.
"When you take all those costs out you're not finding unreasonable profits for everything we have to do to get (gasoline) to consumers," Felmy said. "These requests are just unfortunate."
U.S. consumers use about 9 million barrels of gasoline a day -- about 380 million gallons worth.
Ever penny increase in gasoline prices means that U.S. consumers pay about $1.39 billion extra at the pump each year, according to Senate Energy Committee data.