The national average price of plain old regular gasoline is up a dollar a gallon over the past week to $3.83, according to AAA. California, which alerts the rest of the nation to where pump prices are going, is at $4.20. And nationwide, the diesel fuel that drives our trucks and trains is $4.14 a gallon, even though diesel is cheaper to make than gasoline. No wonder food prices are spiking.
It’s as though we had another Hurricane Katrina furiously driving up the price of fuel, but without the storm. Which makes it interesting that an indie documentary called “Gas Hole,” (trailer), examining the reasons for our high gas prices in the post-Katrina world and oil company influence on the gas-guzzling engines in our cars, is now getting wider release. You can be sure that Exxon didn’t provide the funding for this funny/weird/disturbing doc. (I love the old desert-rat types with faded sedans that get 100 mpg, and their stories of disappearing clean-car patents.)
We find out why there’s no supply and demand in any real sense driving the price of gas today. Oil prices are spiked upward by speculation in futures markets, not by physical shortage on the market. Gasoline is driven upward not just by oil prices, but by refining companies’ restrictions on their output, and overall supplies. Then the price of gasoline pushes up oil prices some more. We’re all at the mercy of greed, not supply and demand.
Some of the serious points covered in “Gas Hole” track OilWatchdog’s studies and reports over the years, which are covered in my colleague Jamie Court’s book, “The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell.” (video). (Full disclosure: Jamie was interviewed for the movie.)
Some of the most eye-opening points from the book:
Remarkably, the idea that oil companies have control over the price at the pump is controversial in Washington, D.C. Oil company executives point to geopolitical instability, future predictions of crude oil scarcity, OPEC, and other forces beyond their control as the culprits.
The public knows the scoop, and its instincts track the research. Oil companies know they can make more money by making less gasoline, so they do.
I have studied the issue of high gasoline prices for more than a decade.
Here’s what I have learned about how the big five oil companies control gasoline prices by making the commodity scarce and keeping the price high. This knowledge is critical to opposing the industry’s anticonsumer behavior and pushing Americans toward real energy change.
• Rather than compete with each other to provide more and cheaper gasoline, oil companies cheat together to withhold needed gasoline supply from the market. Consistently, the companies artificially pull back refinery production of gasoline in order to reduce supply coming in during periods of peak demand so they can increase prices. … This behavior has been documented by government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which found, for example, in an investigation of Midwest gasoline price spikes, that one refiner admitted keeping supply out of a region in need because it would boost prices.
• Oil companies failed to build ample refining capacity to meet demand. Over the last twenty years,America’s demand for gasoline increased 30 percent and refinery capacity at existing refineries increased only 10 percent. No new American refinery has come on line during the last thirty years. Internal memos and documents from the big oil companies show they deliberately shut down refining capacity in order to have a greater command over the market.
• The big oil companies have their own crude oil production operations and control substantial foreign production of crude oil. They profit wildly when the price of crude oil skyrockets, so they have an interest in driving up the price, despite the fact that they blame OPEC for those crude oil increases.The crude oil producers can even drive up the price of crude by restricting gasoline production and trading crude oil among their own subsidiaries to drive up the price paid for crude by others. Traders with connections to the oil companies can also make big bets on the opaque crude oil futures market to drive up the price and also drive up the value of their Exxon shares.
• The crude oil that big integrated oil companies use in their own refineries is mostly bought on long-term contracts or through their own production, so the oil companies don’t pay the world price for crude oil when it’s high. Their raw material costs are much lower than they would like us to believe. So when the companies raise the price of gasoline in tandem with the run-up in crude oil prices, they are making big profits because Exxon’s crude oil unit is charging its own refining unit a higher price for crude than is necessary.The accounting shenanigans result in an overall windfall profit but show the companies’ gasoline refineries making little profit.
“Gas Hole” also pays close attention to oil companies’ long history of influencing markets and government to boost their profits and protect their business model. It pays impressive tribute to the inventor of modern investigative reporting (and one of my personal heroes), Ida Tarbell, whose 1904 history of Standard Oil laid bare a price-fixing national monopoly with tentacles everywhere in government.
Gee, does that sound familiar today? “Gas Hole” has too much sense of the absurd–even a clip from “Reefer Madness”–to be pedantic. But knowledge is power. In the end, it’s a lot more useful than boycotting the Exxon station.
Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.