US poll shows public blames industry for gasoline 'rip-off'

An "overwhelming majority" -- 87% -- of the US public believes oil companies are "ripping off" consumers with high gasoline prices this summer, according to a Harris Poll released Tuesday. A plurality, 42%, said the industry is "mainly to blame" for increased fuel prices.


Sam Fletcher
OGJ Online

HOUSTON, July 3 -- An "overwhelming majority" -- 87% -- of the US public believes oil companies are "ripping off" consumers with high gasoline prices this summer, according to a Harris Poll released Tuesday.

A plurality, 42%, said the industry is "mainly to blame" for increased fuel prices. Another 30% blamed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other foreign oil producers, while 21% blamed government, said officials of Harris Interactive, Rochester, NY, which conducts those polls.

Those findings were based on a nationwide online poll of 1,246 adults during June 7-17. Harris officials said they used the same methodology that allowed the firm to predict the results of last year's elections "with great accuracy."

The latest results help explain a previous poll, released May 23, which showed "a dramatic plunge" in the industry's job approval rating among the public, falling to 27% in May from 39% a year ago and 64% in 1998.

However, the US Energy Information Administration reported an even greater escalation of average May gasoline retail prices during that same period, from $1.073/gal in 1998 to $1.14/gal in 1999, $1.492/gal in 2000, and $1.713/gal this year. Both gasoline and oil prices have since declined from earlier highs this year.

"There just might be a relationship" between rising gasoline pump prices and public approval of the industry, said Ron Planting, an economist with the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, DC.

Yet despite price escalations, less than half -- 46% -- of respondents who own or lease vehicles said they have reduced spending on weekend trips, vacations, recreation and even movies in the face of high prices.

Still, pollsters reported, "The public believes -- and only time will tell if they are right -- that high gasoline prices will have a substantial impact on their own behavior and that of others."

Of those polled, 79% predicted higher gasoline prices "will refocus consumer attention on purchasing vehicles with higher MPG (mile per gallon) rates," officials said.

While only 1% of the public indicated automobile manufacturers are "mainly to blame" for fuel price escalations, fully 78% said they are not "moving as quickly as they should to build automobiles which consume less gasoline."

Some 62% said higher gasoline prices would increase consumer interest in high mileage, hybrid, or gas-electric vehicles. And 48% predicted that higher fuel prices "will result in fewer vehicles being purchased ... over the next year."

Of the 43% of car owners and leasers who expect to buy a new vehicle in the next 2 years, 48% said they would get "a more fuel-efficient one."

However, pollsters cautioned that what consumers say they will do in the future is often a very poor guide to what they actually do.

In the mid-1970s, The Harris Poll found that most Americans said they would stop driving if gasoline prices reached a dollar a gallon.

"The evidence from Europe and Japan is that it takes much higher fuel prices to change consumer behavior," the latest study reported. "Even then the change is not so much to reduce driving as to increase the demand for more fuel-efficient cars and lower the demand for gas-guzzlers. And even that takes time."

Contact Sam Fletcher at samf@ogjonline.com

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