If you think the five major oil companies are gouging you, you are not necessarily paranoid.

At the same time, people in the fuel business need love, too.

The one thing that perplexes this country is why each of the oil companies charges the very same price for a gallon of gas. The differences in prices are because of state taxes.

I tried to find the answer by going to the Billionaires Petroleum Club.

Because of the recent spikes in oil prices, there is now a waiting list of billionaires wanting to get into the club.

I talked to Arthur Lucky, who is president of one of the oil companies and also of the Billionaires Club.

I said, "Some people suspect that there's a conspiracy to fix the price of gasoline."

"People will say anything when they fill their tanks."

"Why is it that no matter which company you use, the price is the same?"

"It's an accident. We never talk about price with each other."

"But if oil is $75 a barrel, then the price of gas changes at all your gas stations. Who sets the price of a barrel of crude?"

"We have no idea, but we'd like to find out so there's somebody else to blame. If you ask me, it is some oil trader on Wall Street."

"People think there is a conspiracy among the five major oil companies, where they sit around a conference table and decide what they're going to charge for gasoline each week."

"That is ridiculous. We would be violating the antitrust laws of the United States and we would have to hire lawyers to keep from going to jail."

"Then you never talk to each other?"

"The only time we discuss price is in the club's Jacuzzi. When you're in the water with no clothes on, you think more clearly."

"Okay, you are all in the Jacuzzi. Who decides what price you're going to charge?"

"Each CEO has the duty for one week. We stay in the pool all through the week. But on Sunday, we go to church and ask God to forgive us."

"I'm sure He will."

"Let me make a point. When we're seeking profits, we're doing it for all the stockholders -- people who believe that oil is the next best thing to godliness."

"What do you do at the Billionaires Club?"

"We play pool, gin rummy, poker, and we have a basketball team that plays against the Billionaires Soft Coal Club in West Virginia. We have an excellent chef who knows what rich people like to eat."

"Were the Enron people members of the club?"

"The people in the Enron energy business were. But when they went broke, we threw them out."

"Back to price-gouging -- what should I tell my readers?"

"Tell them to stay the course. That's what the oil companies are going to do. Even if we make billions of dollars in one year, we still think of the little guy."

"Right."

"And we have to use some of our profits to find new oil. We don't drill holes in the ground for our health."

I said, "Could I join you in the Jacuzzi?"

"No way. We only have room for five people."

He gave me a toy gas station. It had a sign on a pump:

"Gas

"Self-Serve

"3.499/10."

(c) 2005, Tribune Media Services