Many of you are breathing sighs of relief over recent steep declines in gasoline prices.
Do not breathe too deeply.
Those prices are down because the summer driving season has ended. That means acute demand for motor fuel is down.
Meanwhile, corporate embarrassment is up. Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company, reported quarterly profit of $9.9 billion in the third quarter of this year.
That's $9.9 billion with a "b," pretty darned close to a nice, rounded $10 billion; and that's $10 billion in one quarter, one three-month period -- not one year, one decade, one century; not one lifetime of one ordinary American fueling his or her car or truck.
Exxon's profit came in the wakes of disastrous hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, that blew and washed away much of the Gulf Coast and disrupted petroleum production and dual-supply lines in the process.
We were told in this late summer of misery that higher gasoline prices, under the circumstances, were expected and necessary. It's a matter of supply and demand, the oil industry people said. Fuel production and distribution were down and endangered, thus putting available supply in question. Demand was up.
Many of us accepted that explanation even as we winced at pump increases of 50 cents a gallon and higher for regular unleaded; and scratched our collective heads over why many of us in the Mid-Atlantic region were paying pump prices substantially higher than those being charged on the West Coast and in other parts of the country.
Oil industry analysts mouthed something about "spot pricing," but that didn't make any sense to people who could raise or lower the price of a tank of gasoline simply by traveling a mile or so away from a given pump.
Congress began grumbling about the possibility of a gasoline price-gouging investigation. Politicians in state and local offices nationwide began making similar noises. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, which presumably will be decided this week, Republican candidate Jerry W. Kilgore tried to scare up votes by warning that his Democratic opponent, Timothy M. Kaine, would increase consumers' burden at the pump by raising state gasoline taxes.
You don't need a doctorate in corporate public relations to figure out how to defuse that kind of explosive public sentiment. You've made billions of dollars, record profits, in one quarter. The summer driving season is over. The political election season won't last forever; and, heck, it's getting close to Thanksgiving, Hanukah and Christmas! People in foul moods don't buy gifts. You lower gasoline prices.
It's a sensible, effective strategy of consumer management. At fuel pumps in Centreville, Va., last week, motorists were ecstatic over regular unleaded gasoline prices of $2.49 a gallon. There was similar joy at gas stations in Houston, where self-serve unleaded averaged $2.38 a gallon, down 14 cents from a week earlier.
According to the American Automobile Association, the national average for regular self-serve gasoline on Nov. 1 was $2.45 a gallon, down 12 cents from a week earlier and considerably below the $3 range of late summer. Oh, what joy! Oh, what baloney!
It's all a ruse, folks.
Nationally, last year, we were paying an average $2.03 a gallon for regular unleaded. In 2003, it was $1.72. In 2002, it was $1.20, according to AAA numbers.
In other words, despite seasonal and other price fluctuations, the tab at the pump is getting higher, and it will continue to rise. And therein lies the rub in terms of the oil industry's pillage, plunder and placate approach to fuel pricing. Therein rests the greasy wrench in the works that prevents the American electorate from pushing politicians to do something real about energy conservation.
The truth is that overall oil production is declining globally. The truth is that demand for oil is increasing in China, Eastern Europe and South America -- all over the world where people want the same conveniences, modes of transportation and strong economies that exist in North America.
The truth is that we are, in fact, running out of oil; and that rising demand for dwindling resources usually leads to higher costs -- despite the current comforting illusion of declining pump prices.
That being the case, it would be nice, and even in the public's interest, if Congress would do something other than hand the "energy companies," as they now prefer to be called, $14.5 billion in tax credits provided in the Bush administration energy bill that lawmakers approved earlier this year.
Does it make sense to give billions of dollars in tax credits to companies that make billions of dollars of profits in one quarter? Am I missing something? Why not make the energy companies use more of their own money to help ensure future energy supplies?