Fear that gas prices could hit $5 per gallon by summer has triggered yet another debate in Congress over whether the nation needs a new energy policy and is leading some Republicans to renew their call for more domestic energy production.
"We haven't had a coherent energy policy in this nation, and right now we're being held hostage when you see these prices go up as we go forward toward the summer," said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City.
Gas prices continued to rise across the nation Friday, with a gallon of regular averaging $3.471, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. That is 18.4 cents higher than a week ago and 76.5 cents higher than last year.
Prices in Knoxville are slightly below the state and national averages. A gallon of regular averaged $3.349 in the Knoxville area Friday, a 21.2-cent increase from a week ago and 76.4 cents higher than last year.
The nation's highest prices are in California, where a gallon of regular averages $3.845. Gas is cheapest in Montana, where the average is $3.141 per gallon. The statewide average in Tennessee is $3.352.
"Right now, that's my No. 1 concern," U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, said of the spike in prices. "If gas prices go back up to what many people are predicting, it could stop our (economic) recovery dead in its tracks."
Duncan's office said the congressman has met with local officials in Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arkansas over the past month to hear about their transportation needs. Gas prices have been a concern across the country, said Duncan, chairman of the House Transportation Committee's Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
"People in these small towns and rural areas have to drive further distances to go to work," Duncan said. "Many of them are going to lower-wage type jobs. You drive those gas prices up like that, and you're really going to hurt a lot of poor and low-income working people."
Duncan said he expects the surging prices to spur the new Republican majority in the U.S. House to push for an energy policy to encourage more domestic production. Any new policy should include drilling in areas that are currently off-limits and accelerated approval of new nuclear power plants, Duncan said.
"If we started drilling a little bit more, those other countries couldn't be raising their prices as fast as they're raising them," Duncan said.
Roe also urged new drilling - "we ought to be drilling yesterday," he said - and suggested offering loan guarantees to companies that build nuclear power plants. He also proposed offering tax credits to encourage trucking companies and truck owners to switch to vehicles that use natural gas.
"We are the absolute, natural gas Saudi Arabia of the world, and every big bus ought to be running on natural gas and not on diesel," Roe said.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, said the nation needs to develop a comprehensive energy portfolio that includes a variety of American-produced energy sources, such as increased production of oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear. He also suggested expanding alternative forms of energy, such as biofuels, wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal.
"This will lower energy prices, create new American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil," DesJarlais said. "We simply cannot afford to let government bureaucracy stifle our nation's ability to produce our own sources of energy, making us dependent on foreign countries for our energy needs."
In the short term, however, lawmakers said there's little Congress can do to hold down gas prices, other than asking President Barack Obama to open up the nation's strategic oil reserves.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told lawmakers last week that the reserves are substantial. "If necessary, those reserves could be mobilized to help mitigate the effect of a severe, sustained supply disruption," Geithner said.
Duncan suggested releasing some of the reserves before prices hit $5 a gallon.
"That's not the whole answer," he said, "but rather than to allow those prices to go way up, I would at least release a portion" of the reserves.