$3-a-gallon gas: Blame Washington, not Big Oil
What's driving up gas prices? It's not just higher crude costs; it's new regulations.
by Nelson D. Schwartz, FORTUNE Magazine senior writer

(FORTUNE Magazine) - With gas prices roaring past $3 a gallon and consumer fury rising even faster, Congress and the White House are engaged in a Kabuki-like ritual: pointing fingers at each other over who's to blame, while furiously attacking Big Oil for reaping gargantuan profits - as drivers get hosed at the pump.

If the politicians really want to figure out who's responsible for the latest round of price increases, though, they'd be better off looking in the mirror. That's because the rise isn't only due to higher crude costs. It's also fallout from some little-noticed provisions in the energy bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush last summer.

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Buried in the 551-page energy bill - which was supposed to ease energy shortages, not worsen them - were new regulations governing what additives go into gasoline and how it's refined. Corn-based ethanol is replacing the petroleum-derived additive MTBE, but Congress timed this logistically tricky switchover to occur just as demand for gasoline peaked ahead of the summer driving season - right about now.

The end result is an extra strain on the refining and distribution system when it can least afford it.

"It's too late now, but Congress has consistently failed to sequence regulatory requirements in a responsible fashion," says Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

Adds Larry Goldstein of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation: "The gasoline crisis is made in the U.S.A., not in Iran or Venezuela or Nigeria. At least half the increase in gasoline prices is due to unintended consequences of the energy bill, but no one in Washington wants to admit that."

Indeed, while crude prices have risen 21% since the end of 2005, gasoline is up 37% - a sign of just how stretched the system is. Congress's mistake, says Goldstein, was setting the new law to go into effect 270 days after it was signed - May 5 - rather than waiting until fall, when gas demand is typically on the downswing.

Now the big question is, How high can gas go? Well, perhaps the only good thing that can be said about paying three bucks per gallon is that it seems to be slowing consumption - which should, in turn, reduce prices. Over a four-week period in April, says oil analyst Jamal Qureshi of consulting firm PFC Energy, U.S. gasoline demand dropped by half a percent, to just over nine million barrels a day. That may not sound like much, but it's a reversal from the 1.7% average annual increase in gas consumption the U.S. has experienced over the past decade. If $3 is indeed the tipping point at which consumers change their behavior and alter their driving habits, it's the one silver lining in an otherwise very dark cloud for drivers.

The wildcard in this scenario, of course, is the increasing risk of a military confrontation with Iran. If that happens, says Qureshi, "all bets are off." Given that crude oil accounts for 55% of the cost of each gallon of gas (refining accounts for 22%, taxes for 19%, and distribution and marketing for 4%), an upward spike in crude oil would push gas up even if the bottlenecks caused by the energy bill ease this summer.

That's why Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, says the answer in the short term is conservation. Washington is indeed being turned upside down when it's left to Cavaney, Big Oil's chief lobbyist, to talk conservation while the White House and Congress point fingers.

The losers in this blame game are ordinary drivers like Richard Shepherd, a Hoschton, Ga., native who traded his Pontiac Bonneville sedan for a fuel-efficient Honda Accord hybrid a year ago but still finds himself paying $45 each time he fills his tank.

"The hybrid has helped, but even so I've had to change my habits and cut back," says Shepherd, a 56-year old IT project manager. "It's frustrating. And there's no end in sight."


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