Monday, May 01, 2006, 7:00 AM

More On Gas Prices and Price Gouging

There have been many newspaper stories in the past week about high gas prices and investigations into possible price gouging and price manipulation.

From the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition:

"Since the 1990s, the FTC has engaged in multiple gas-price investigations, but it has yet to find a case of price manipulation. The last major investigation, which was in 2001 after gasoline in the Midwest was priced at about 30% more than the national average, found that the high prices were primarily a product of refinery production problems, pipeline disruptions, low inventories, and high crude prices."

From NPR Online:

"Big oil companies are making most of their money by producing crude oil. They invested in oil fields when prices were much lower, with the expectation that they could break even at, say, $25 per barrel. Since the market price is now more than $70 a barrel, the extra money is gravy. It's like a farmer who can raise corn for $1.50 a bushel. If the market price is $1.75, he makes a quarter per bushel. If the market price jumps to $2.25, his profits jump as well. (If the market crashes to $1 per bushel, the farmer loses money. That can happen to oil companies as well.) Oil companies, like the farmer, are the beneficiaries of high market prices, but they can no more control those prices than a farmer can dictate what he gets for a bushel of corn.

Critics would say the oil industry is far less competitive than the corn market, which is certainly true. But if oil companies could control the price of crude oil, they would not have allowed the price to fall to $10 a barrel as it did in 1998."


"[T]alk about price-gouging is inane at several levels. If you don't have some sort of monopoly power, gouging is another word for charging the highest price the market will bear, also known as capitalism. This is why the FTC investigation has turned up nothing. What constrains filling stations from marking up gas excessively is not the fear of prosecution but competition from other filling stations....

What none can acknowledge is that higher gas prices in the United States are a good thing. To be sure, oil at $70 a barrel causes hardships for working people and delights some of the world's worst dictators. But cheap gasoline imposes its own costs on society: greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and its attendant health risks, traffic congestion, and accidents. The ideal way to cope with these externalities would be with higher gas taxes or a carbon tax. But these are politically impossible ideas at the moment--Democrats lost control of Congress in part because they passed a 4-cent-per-gallon tax increase in 1993. The next best solution is the one that has arrived on its own: a high market price for oil, which spurs conservation and substitution. Sustained high prices will bring about behavioral and political changes: energy conservation, public transportation, less exurban sprawl, and eventually the economic viability of alternative fuel sources such as biomass, fuel cells, wind, and solar power, which may one day undermine the power of the oil oligarchs. Are politicians too stupid to understand this, or just smart enough not to say it aloud?"

To read about the President's announcement that federal and state regulators will investigate illegal price manipulation in the gasoline industry, see this post.


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