Bob Tippee

Energy graft has come full circle in the US Congress.

Senate Republicans propose to buy off the fuel consumers they trounced while coddling trial lawyers and ethanol producers with last year's comprehensive energy bill.

In a gesture that would be historic for silliness were it not for the gravity of last year's mistake, the senators filed legislation that includes a $100 tax rebate designed, according to a press statement, "to help ease the burden of high gasoline prices."

In view of the congressional contribution to price discomfort, what's historic is Republican cynicism.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 created the logistical squeeze now helping to push up gasoline prices as refiners dump methyl tertiary butyl ether and scramble for replacement ethanol for reformulated gasoline. The act did that by leaving in place an irrelevant but plaintiff-friendly cause of action in lawsuits over leaked MTBE.

Longer term, the act's generous mandate for ethanol will further lift gasoline manufacture and distribution costs, adding to the costs, invisible at the pump, of ethanol tax breaks and air-quality disadvantages.

These aren't the main reasons gasoline prices are high at the moment in the US. The main reasons are crude prices elevated in global markets and US refineries hobbled by hurricanes.

While Congress can't control the crude market or fix refineries, it can correct its ethanol and MTBE blunders. But it won't. Politicians don't admit errors, especially in an election year.

And Republican politicians seem no longer to believe in markets. Along with the $100 bribe to consumers, they offer protection against price-gouging, as though the expansive oil market permitted that kind of thing, and repeal of a few oil company tax incentives, on the apparent presumption that making money warrants punishment.

The proposal inharmoniously includes approval of leasing of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, which stands no chance of passage. Sponsors probably included ANWR leasing to remind voters they're Republicans.

A more important reminder is of the nefarious political tradition of buying votes with energy policy and blaming oil companies for the consequent harm to consumers.

(Online Apr. 28, 2006; author's email:

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