Solving the gas-price mystery 


June has come and almost gone, yet nobody in the 24-7 side of the media world has paid attention to the month's most significant, intriguing local news story.

Most of the focus has bounced between the typical and the weird, from the war in Iraq to Paris Hilton. Here, though, let's address the story that has gone ignored.

Gas prices didn't go up.

Every other year, as predictable as the annual influx of tourists, hummingbirds and pollen, gas prices in Colorado Springs and across the state have spiked. Basic economics, as we heard for years, should tell us that more demand means higher prices. It's one of the business world's basic facts of life. So we have dealt with the annual jump, typically 10 to 20 cents a gallon, through the summer to Labor Day.

This year, it didn't happen. Anyone who pays attention had to fear the worst in mid-May, when gas prices set all-time records across the country. Even for cars not classified as gas-guzzlers, many area drivers were paying $50 a tank, based on $3.29 a gallon for regular, the actual pump prices rising in amazing (if you're naive) unison. National analysts were saying the prices might go as high as $4 a gallon this summer. Recalling recent history, nobody argued.

In reality, prices have slowly inched down throughout the month, not just here but all across America. Last weekend, for the first time in a few months, $2.99 signs for brand-name gas reappeared in the Springs. Nobody seems to know why, but apparently we're supposed to be excited about the downturn.

Then again, we could see this as just another example of market manipulation that the oil industry has denied throughout this boom of unprecedented profits for Exxon, Shell and the like. They insist fluctuations in supplies, reportedly caused by problems at a handful of refineries, have caused huge gas-price increases this year.

Sorry, but that's too much manure to swallow. Here's another thought: Sometime last winter, in a secret meeting (many would assume Dick Cheney was there), somebody could've hatched a plan to deceive the public and avoid a dip in Big Oil's bottom line.

Just imagine ... shut down refineries for repairs, cut supplies during a period of lower demand, leading to a sharp escalation of prices at the pump. Nobody would ever confirm that, but the public has a short memory, making us vulnerable. In Colorado, we forget paying $1.99 a gallon just five months ago, in late January.

Suddenly, the price shot up. Prices eventually climbed to $3.29 for regular but as high as $3.69 for high-octane unleaded at many stations. Depending on the source, gas skyrocketed as much as 65 percent in just 120 days. Yet Big Oil never provided a believable explanation.

Now comes the next phase in the Duping of America: Bring the prices down 20 to 30 cents a gallon, and tell us it's the result of demand being "lower than expected." Continue to make billions as the public feels better (and drives more).

Still, at $2.99 for regular unleaded, that's 50 percent higher than January. Big Oil instead wants us to be grateful that $50 tank of gas now is down to $45.

The best description comes from Mark Cooper, who heads research for the Consumer Federation of America. Testifying at a congressional hearing, Cooper said, "By creating a situation of extremely tight supply, the oil companies gain control over price at the wholesale level. They have exercised that market power to raise prices, and the result has been a dramatic increase in the profitability of refining and overall oil company profits."

Somewhere, somebody is plotting the next move. Big Oil can't let profits slide, even if they are artificially inflated. The industry has to take full advantage now, because it might not be so easy after a new tenant moves into the White House.

In other words, don't rejoice about gas prices going down in June. The real story is that we've been paying summer prices for months.



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