White House and Energy Department officials are drafting regulations that would give gasoline dealers and refiners bigger profit margins, thus adding to prices at the pump.
"When we take action, it could be as low as a fraction of a cent or a couple of cents a gallon," a senior Energy Department official said yesterday. At the least, he said, the administration's decision, expected in the next few weeks, will add a "couple of hundred million dollars" a year to the bills of American motorists.
Oil industry analysts say that for each additional cent in gasoline prices added at the pump, industy revenues increase by about $1 billion a year.
The purpose of the gasoline price increases, DOE says, is to provide higher profits for gasoline dealers whose margins have been frozen since 1974. The Energy Department also hopes that the new price hikes-which could be imposed by adopting a national or regional ceiling price-will make gasoline refining and retailing more competitive, and resolve severe problems the DOE now has in enforcing gasoline price regulations.
A draft of the proposes rules obtained by The Washington Post says continuing price controls at still higher prices "should not be constructed as a deviation from the Department of Energy's policy position with respect to the ultimate removal of all gasoline price and allocation rules."
Meanwhile, at the Justice Department yesterday, officials said the four-day gasoline service station strike dealer associations, appears to have been aborted. Gasoline station retail associations in California, Connecticut, Missouri, Indiana, and Iowa last week called on members to begin a four-day strike Thursday, May 17. The Justice Department said Friday that its antitrust section might go to court to block the protest.
"At present we see no immediate need to go to court," Mark Sheehan, a Justice spokeman said yesterday.
The dealers proposed the strike to protest DOE pricing and allocation regulations.
Mickey Binsted, an official at the National Congress of Petroleum Retailers, which represents 60,000 service station operators, says her organization has called on the Energy Department to allow operators to increase profits - and prices - by 3.4 cents a gallon.
Jacob Puteske, president of the NCPR and a Sunoco dealer in Fort Lee, N.J., said DOE rules limiting dealers' profit margins "has closed 50,000 gasoline stations since 1974." Puteske said his organization has not sanctioned the dealers' shutdown plans, but endorses their goal of increasing profits.
According to Jack Blum, an attorney representing the Independent Gasoline Marketers Association, DOE's current pricing regulations "have been destructive" to competition among service station operators. At best, he contended, changes in the pricing rules "would preserve the status quo" by preventing many more stations from going out of business.
the trend to fewer and fewer gasoline stations was already under way before the current gasoline crunch. A study issued by Arthur D. Little Inc. last year predicted that by 1981 the number of gasoline stations would fall from about 171,300 now to 132,000-a drop of 23 percent. Arther D. Little said that the reasons for the forecast are the expected peak in gasoline demand in the early 1980s, and a slide in the amount of money the major oil companies are willing to invest in low-profit gasoline retail outlets.
Still another factor is the increasing withdrawals by the major oil companies such as Texaco, Gulf and Shell (the nation's largest gasoline retailer) from less-profitable gasoline sales regions.
Among the options the White House and DOE are considering are:
Establishing a single national ceiling price for all grades of gasoline, known within the Energy Department as "the O'Leary plan" after Deputy Energy Secretary John F. O'Leary.
Setting a ceiling price dor various grades of gasoline.
Set a ceiling price on the basis of different regional cost factors, such as geographic location, or the types of service offered by gas station dealers.
Allowing the dealers to increase the so-called "nonproduct" costs for gasoline sales that are passed through to customers. This would cover such costs as labor and other operating expenses not related to the cost of gasoline.