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Gassy rhetoric on gasoline prices

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Alex Brandon/Associated Press

“Gas prices have more than doubled since the president took office.”

— House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Feb. 16

“We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance — algae. You’ve got a bunch of algae out here, right? . . . Believe it or not, we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in the United States.”

— President Obama, in his speech about energy, Feb. 23

If it’s an election year, politicians must be talking about gas prices.

We remember covering the 1996 presidential campaign, when Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), the eventual Republican nominee, called for repealing a gasoline tax designed to reduce the deficit to give car owners a break because of predictions that gas might top $1.31 a gallon over the summer.

That number seems almost quaint now, even if Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) was wrong when he said in a GOP debate last week that gas already exceeded $6 a gallon in Florida.

Readers should immediately discount anything politicians say about gas prices. Let’s take a look at two common rhetorical tricks, involving statements that are more or less true on their face.

Ignoring inflation and other context

Boehner correctly noted that gas prices have doubled since President Obama took office. But he did not mention that they were unusually low in early 2009 because of the economic crisis, when demand for energy plunged. We’re not sure that the economic misery of those days is worth cheap gas.

Today’s gas prices, in fact, reflect more of an upward trend that began during George W. Bush’s presidency, rather than a bounce off the unusual low at the start of Obama’s term.

Moreover, even today’s prices are more or less average when inflation is put into context, according to the Energy Information Agency. For instance, that 26-cent-a-gallon gas in 1921 is the equivalent of $3.35 in today’s dollars. That $1.38 gasoline in 1981 is the equivalent of $3.45. The price of gas was actually historically low — the equivalent of $1.74 — when Dole was complaining about it.

The Washington Post’s graphics department has put together a nifty illustration of how nominal gas prices are so much more misleading than inflation-adjusted prices.

In other words, if gas hits $5 a gallon this summer, that would be an inflation-adjusted high — just not as dramatic as some politicians might suggest.

Pie-in-the-sky predictions

We will focus on Obama’s comment about algae, in last week’s speech on energy, but we could have just as easily chosen claims about new oil drilling, pipelines or vast untapped reserves. Politicians often overstate the potential impact that such investments can have on gas prices in the short term.

The White House pointed to this report as the source for Obama’s claim that “we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in the United States.”

But the paper in question mostly focuses on using water more efficiently to grow algae, which require a great deal of water. It does not deal with the economic viability of algae or how quickly this goal can be achieved. “Additional resource and economic constraints must also be considered, including availability of nutrients, land cost and local regulations, feedstock processing logistics, and transportation infrastructure,” the paper noted.

Moreover, the economic viability of such biofuels of algae has been questioned, with one researcher predicting it would only be viable when oil hit $800 a barrel. (Oil is now about $110 per barrel.) Even more telling, Royal Dutch Shell quit research on algae biofuels last year when the oil giant decided to reduce its biofuel research from 10 technologies to five.

In other words, despite the president’s optimistic projection, don’t expect to be filling your fuel tank with pond scum anytime soon.

The Pinocchio Test

Because we are using these quotes to illustrate rhetorical techniques, we won’t be awarding Pinocchios this time. But we are eager to delve deeper into this issue and encourage readers to submit comments that are especially egregious. E-mail us at factchecker@washpost.com or use the Fact Check This form on the right side of this Web page.

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