Playing Politics at the Pump
There are few issues that catch our collective attention like the prices we pay for gasoline. Recently, gas prices have surged - though still relatively normal when adjusted for inflation. Once we hit the summer months, you can be sure that prices will be even higher than they are today, with further increases on tap. All of this is taking place during a year that's anything but ordinary. It's a presidential campaign year, and as a result, it seems the level of rhetoric about gas prices is skyrocketing just as quickly as the prices themselves.
First, let's dispel the myth of widespread gas price gouging. While it's true that price gouging may take place in a few dishonest stations here and there across the country, investigations conducted by Congress and the Department of Energy (under the control of either political party) have come to the same conclusion over and over again. The notion that gas stations work together to take advantage of the American consumer - through price gouging - is simply false. In fact, most gas station owners don't even make their money off of gasoline - but from sales of snacks and beverages and the like. Gas prices - like prices in any other industry - are determined in large part by the economic principle of supply and demand.
We've all been to a gas station on a Saturday and recalled that prices at that same station on the previous Wednesday were significantly lower. Why? Supply and demand. When demand for gasoline is higher (on weekends), it costs producers and station owners more to supply the fuel to meet that demand. As a result of their increased costs, ours rise as well.
Recently, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) - which supplies a huge chunk of the world's oil - announced it would cut supply by one million barrels per day. The result? We're seeing it right now: higher prices. It's really just a larger-scale example of the Wednesday vs. Saturday gas price problem. OPEC has slashed supply, and as summer approaches, our demand increases. Thus, higher prices follow.
So, what do we do about these rising prices?
A trendy suggestion from many - especially during this year's presidential campaign - is for President Bush to suspend oil shipments to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (our nation's emergency stockpile of oil to be used only during the most severe economic emergencies) to divert more oil shipments into the consumer market. Supporters of this plan argue it would drive prices down. However, history shows this is barely the case. The last time an administration tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was in 2000, when President Clinton did so. When this oil finally hit the market, prices did drop by one penny per gallon.
But there are several proven solutions. We must increase our own domestic energy production, for one. What better way to decrease our dependence on OPEC oil than becoming more "energy independent" ourselves? With an eye toward this solution and more, last year the House passed and the President supported a national, comprehensive energy bill. Unfortunately, that legislation is stuck in neutral over in the Senate for various political and regional reasons. If enacted, however, this measure not only would increase domestic energy production. It also would improve our own energy conservation and efficiency standards and promote more renewable and alternative energy usage, including more production of ethanol - a benefit not just to Ohio motorists but to our state's corn growers too.
Additionally, we should avoid any sort of gas tax hike. This would seem to be common sense to most of us, but even some of my own colleagues in Congress have pitched the idea of raising the gas tax to increase revenue for highway projects. President Bush has refused to endorse the idea, and you can be sure that such a plan will never get my vote either. Why make high prices even higher
Though somewhat difficult and not all that cut-and-dry, there are a few reasonable solutions we can take to ease burden of gas prices. By the same token, there are a few cosmetic solutions that we should be sure to avoid as well - even if they are trendy or politically popular. It will be a long, hot summer with gas prices increasing throughout. However, in the long run, we have the opportunity to pursue solutions that would make this summer the exception instead of the rule.