Grumpy about gas

Now here's something that may be of interest whether you are gay, straight or only perpetually grumpy, like a certain columnist with whom I sleep. You may not have noticed this, but gasoline prices are at an all-time high.

That's not much of a burden in Detroit, where the gleaming subways and efficient light rail make this a showcase for model mass transit. But out in the far-off burbs, in Highland Park, say, there isn't much choice but to drive.

And that has gotten terrifically expensive. Normally there is a clear and rational reason when gas prices skyrocket, such as tensions in the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina or the head of Exxon/Mobil's need to throw an expensive coming-out party for his daughter or his boyfriend.

But this time, there seems to be no rational reason for gas station owners to be raising prices twice a day, other than perhaps sheer greed. What's happening here? And is there anything any of us can do about it?

I figured that if anyone knew, it would be the man they used to call "The Truck," U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who has been in the Big House, aka the Capitol, longer than anybody else now there. He arrived in 1955, when gas was 29 cents a gallon. For most of that time, he's been deeply concerned with energy.

Currently, he heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

What, I asked him, is going on? "Gas prices are the highest in history, and, quite frankly, are headed higher. I won't defend it, I am not happy about it, but that's the world we live in," the congressman said.

Why are the oil companies charging so much for gas? Is it really, as they say, because of the need to change blends of gas for the different seasons? Or are they just trying to gouge, cheat and screw us out of every last dollar?

Well, if you assume the worst, you probably would be right. Here's one arena where I do subscribe to conspiracy theories. Business Week magazine last week took a look at Exxon/Mobil, which was the most profitable company in the nation last year, with cash flow of a cool $49 billion.

What do you suppose they did with most of that money? Financed expeditions to look for more oil? Built modern new refineries to ease demand? Plunged billions into alternative energy research, to make sure there is life after fossil fuel? Gave it to the Little Sisters of the Poor? Ho ho.

Exxon/Mobil used most of their profits to buy back their own stock. That helps boost their profits, and helps make sure commodity prices stay high. Sound crazy? Not if you are a soulless corporate greedhead. Looking for new reserves costs money and takes time, years at least, before the company gets any return on its investment. As for refineries — there haven't been any new ones built by anybody since the 1970s! Oil company flacks have excuses for that.

They say that improvements have enabled our current refineries to be ever so much more efficient. Besides, they note, the president, aka the Great Decider, has called on America to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent over the next couple decades, and we know he always flawlessly sees the future.

So we won't need any new refining capacity, will we, Muffy? Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, thinks otherwise. The big oil companies "have no interest in building spare capacity because they would undermine their pricing power," he told CNN.

Cooper suggested that we indeed need to move away from fossil fuel, but that in the interim, such price gouging makes no sense. Nor does charging more than a few extra pennies a gallon when the refineries have to switch from making winter blends of gasoline to summer, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, Cooper seems to be somewhat of a hopelessly naive idealist who still believes in democracy and balance of power; he suggests that Congress use its anti-trust authority to investigate whether the oil industry has become too monopolistic. I asked the dean of Congress what he thought.

To my dismay, Dingell seemed to think that would be futile. "I'm not saying tighter regulation of the oil companies is or is not needed. What I am saying is that we have a very good set of anti-trust laws, which now, in this administration, are sort of an eight-year-old historical fiction.

"In fact, we have no regulation of the oil companies at this time."

There is one small glimmer of hope. Dingell's fellow congressman Bart Stupak, a Democrat from the Upper Peninsula, has been pushing a bill called the Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act. Last week it passed the House by a two-to-one margin, winning support from all Michigan members except Joe Knollenberg, who backed the oil company interests, as you might expect.

Last year the House passed a similar bill, which then died in the U.S. Senate. This year its chances should be better, given that Democrats control both houses and clear evidence of price gouging is on every street corner that has a service station. Whether the Great Decider will veto it is unknown.

Sadly, the bill may not have enough teeth. It would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and punish, allegedly, companies which unreasonably inflate energy prices. It specifically targets the oil giants, companies that make more than a half billion dollars a year.

Yet ... would that do any good? The House version does provide penalties that seem fairly stiff for individuals. A person convicted of energy price gouging could theoretically be fined $2 million and get 10 years in the slam.

But the bill calls for a maximum fine of $150 million for a company. When you can pile up an extra $5 billion to $10 billion by racking up the price, that may seem a reasonable enough "user fee" for Big Oil to pay.

There is also the fear that the bill will be watered down further in the U.S. Senate. Do yourself a favor today, and write or e-mail our two senators, plus all of those who are or may be running for president, and tell them you want a tough anti-gouging bill, and expect them to make sure it makes it through the Congress.

The Democrats just made fools of themselves and rolled over and played dead (again) for Bush's murderous Iraq policy. Maybe they will have more cojones on something dearest to their constituents' wallets.


Shifting with the sands: I have been against the war in Iraq since before the first bomb fell, mainly because it was clear that things would turn out pretty much as they have. Yet I underwent a total conversion last week after watching the Shrub's seriously loopy press conference.

That was the one where he had the reporters sit outside on little deck chairs to hear him announce, "I'm credible because I read the intelligence."

When one reporter tried to question him further, Bush blurted out, "They are a threat to your children, David, and whoever is in the Oval Office better understand it." Clearly, this war is about saving David Gregory's children.

Nice to finally know what it is for! And it is also now clear to me that unless we send more troops, President Thieu will be overthrown and the Viet Cong will take over Thailand and then all the dominos will fall and they will be in Mount Clemens in a month. Bombs away!

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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