As Gas Prices Rise Again, Democrats Blame Big Oil

Gasoline prices in San Francisco are the highest in the nation.
Gasoline prices in San Francisco are the highest in the nation. (By Paul Sakuma -- Associated Press)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

A week after U.S. gasoline prices hit a near-record $3.05 a gallon, Democrats in Congress are promoting legislation taking aim at the big oil companies, although industry experts say that the efforts aren't likely to have any effect.

Standing in front of an Exxon station near the Capitol on Wednesday with the posted $3.05-a-gallon price for unleaded regular in the background, half a dozen senators railed against the oil industry.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Congress would look into breaking up the giant companies. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) promoted her anti-price-gouging bill, which the Senate Commerce Committee adopted on Tuesday. And Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) backed a windfall profits tax, pointing to $440 billion in profits over the past six years for the nation's five biggest oil companies.

"I think it's time to say to these people, 'Stop ripping off the American people,' " Sanders said.

It was no mystery what brought the lawmakers to the station on Massachusetts Avenue: Gas prices are climbing, and people aren't happy about it.

The government's Energy Information Administration said this week that "continuing problems for refineries in the United States and abroad, combined with strong global gasoline demand, have raised our projected average summer gasoline price by 14 cents per gallon." Its earlier forecast was made just last month.

EIA predicted that regular unleaded gasoline would average $2.95 a gallon this summer, 11 cents a gallon more than last summer.

While they haven't curtailed their driving habits, two-thirds of U.S. adults said in a mid-April Washington Post-ABC News poll that gasoline price increases had caused "financial hardship" for their households; 36 percent said that the hardship had been "serious."

Over the past four years, price increases and congressional outrage have become a spring ritual. Last year, Republican leaders discussed similar measures -- including a $100 rebate for consumers, a tax on oil inventories, steps against price gouging, new drilling opportunities and regulatory changes -- most of which faded away toward the end of the legislative session.

Now in the minority, Republican lawmakers this week poked back at the Democrats' ideas. "I think it shows that they're either unbelievably naive about how markets work or unbelievably cynical," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Barton said most Democrats opposed opening up new areas of Alaska or the Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas drilling. "If you want to get prices down, you're going to have to have a supply component to energy," he said.

Democrats have focused on two tactics on gasoline prices. On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the Energy and Commerce Committee to mark up a bill proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that would give the federal government more power to pursue accusations of price gouging.

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