Bob Tippee

Watching Congress respond to rising fuel prices is painful.

Lawmakers didn't have to worry about fuel costs when prices were low—which was most of the period between 1986 and 2002. Consumers certainly didn't worry. They were taking to the streets in sport utility vehicles and monster pickup trucks. So Congress felt no pressure to wonder whether the comfort would last, which of course it could not.

Now, with markets tight, lawmakers who haven't given two serious thoughts to oil and gas for years must pretend to be on top of things. To many of them, that means asserting discredited myths and exploiting popular ignorance.

The latest example is an Apr. 18 letter from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) to Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah P. Majoras complaining that refining capacity utilization lately has fallen below 90% (OGJ Online, Apr. 19, 2006).

"Given the past behavior of the oil companies who take advantage of natural or cyclical occurrences and raise prices even more than necessary, this requires scrutiny," Schumer harrumphed.

Good grief. Capacity utilization is down because three refineries remain idle from hurricane damage and others have been undergoing storm-delayed maintenance. Beyond the refining constraints, fuel manufacturing and handling costs are rising, and crude prices are leaping, all for well-documented reasons. Yet all Schumer can see is chicanery by oil companies.

There is no "past behavior" of companies raising prices "even more than necessary." No such practice came to light in any of the investigations blustery lawmakers instigated in response to past price upswings. And none will emerge in the probe Schumer wants.

Yet politicians like him keep trumpeting the same old suspicions. Why? Are they hopelessly dense? Or do they think the easy political gain available from misguided prejudice warrants serial falsehood?

The US needs to outgrow the silly belief that malign forces—not market dynamics—raise oil prices. The myth clouds thinking about energy and fosters too many policy mistakes—including several now raising the costs of vehicle fuel.

In view of how often it's been refuted, the myth is not just incorrect. It's also a wicked lie.

(Online Apr. 21, 2006; author's e-mail:

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