Whom should we blame for high gasoline prices? The president? Oil companies? Price gougers? Protestors in the Arab Spring? People who drive Hummers?
The answer to that question is one of the first serious issues of the 2011 presidential campaign. (Sorry, Trump. Sorry, Birthers.) It's an issue that could -- and perhaps should -- become an oil war at home, politically speaking.
The issue is heating up because gas prices affect us all, whether we're buying fuel, food or consumer goods. Rising gas prices threaten our recovery from the recession and our ability to put Americans back to work.
To anticipate how the price of oil might unfold as a campaign issue, we can look to California in 2006. One of the initiatives on California's ballot that year was Proposition 87 to establish a new tax on petroleum extracted from the state's oil fields. The tax would have raised $400 million annually to fund alternative energy programs, with the goal of cutting the state's oil consumption 25 percent over 10 years.
Proposition 87 contained a clear prohibition against oil companies passing the cost of the tax to consumers by raising fuel prices. The tax would have to come out of profits. In July 2006, polls indicated that 51 percent of California's voters supported the initiative.
Then in August, opponents launched an aggressive campaign of television ads supported in part by more than $30 million from Chevron. The ads claimed Proposition 87 would result in higher gasoline prices -- despite the prohibition in the initiative.
One of the ads featured the president of the California Chamber of Commerce warning that Proposition 87 "would impose a $4 billion tax on oil produced in California, a tax that would lawfully be passed on to the rest of us."
By October 2006, voter support for Proposition 87 had dropped from 51 percent to 41 percent. The measure was defeated in the November election.
Fast forward to Washington in 2011. Republicans are warning again that a "tax increase" (actually subsidy reform) for oil companies will push gasoline prices higher. Some are blaming President Obama for expensive gasoline.
To his credit on the issue of oil subsidies, the president stirred the pot with an April 26 letter to leaders in the House and Senate, urging them to "take immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil". Obama included the same proposal in his last two budget submissions to Congress.
A day later, 29 Democrats in the House wrote to Speaker John Boehner, asking for an up-or-down vote on oil subsidy reform. Boehner said no. His spokesman explained: "The Speaker wants to increase the supply of American energy to lower gas prices and create millions of American jobs. Raising taxes will increase gas prices and make it harder to create jobs."
In that response, Boehner's spokesman managed to squeeze three big untruths into two short sentences. They came straight out of the dog-eared playbook the oil industry and its supporters continue using to frighten voters about jobs, taxes and energy prices.
The president has proposed repealing tax breaks for oil companies, not increasing taxes for consumers. Repealing the subsidies will result in higher gasoline prices only if oil companies want to shake down consumers. Four billion dollars a year is chump change in the oil industry. It would shave very little off its profits.
In the first three months of this year alone, Exxon-Mobil earned nearly $11 billion. Chevron netted more than $6 billion. When Rep. Diane DeGette asked the Energy Information Administration several years ago whether subsidy cuts would cause an increase in gasoline prices, EIA told her that oil revenues were so large that eliminating the industry's taxpayer subsidies need not make a difference in the price at the pump.
The third misstatement in Boehner's response was that subsidy reform would discourage oil companies from drilling. So long as there's money to be made, oil companies will drill. Again, $4 billion a year will not make a dent in their profits.
In regard to the blame game, Politico reports this week that:
Americans are paying more than $4 a gallon for gas, ExxonMobil announced a 69 percent boost in earnings, and President Barack Obama is struggling with the fact that he can't do much about any of it... Political experts of all stripes say (high gas prices are not) good news for Obama.
Politico cites a new Washington Post/ABC poll in which 60 percent of Independents said they "are concerned enough about gas prices to say that they definitely will not back Obama for reelection."
But if President Obama can't do much more about gasoline prices, why should he be blamed for them? The administration has deployed the few countermeasures in its arsenal to reduce our dependence on oil and the price we pay for it. Among other things, it has instituted aggressive new efficiency standards for vehicles. The president doesn't benefit from spikes in the price of oil. On the contrary. We can be certain he will do all he can to keep the recovery on track.
If it's not "the most powerful leader in the world", then what really affects oil prices? As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains:
It's a global oil market. Even if 3 million additional barrels a day could be extruded from lands and seabeds of the United States (the most optimistic figure, after all exploration is done), that sum is tiny compared to 86 million barrels now produced around the world. In other words, even under the best circumstances, the price to American consumers would hardly budge.
The Atlantic offers more detail:
Fuel taxes make up 12 percent of the retail price of gasoline. Gas taxes averaged 48.1 cents per gallon as of last January. The federal portion is 18.4 cents per gallon; state taxes averaged 28.6 cents. The federal tax supports the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to build and maintain the interstate highway system, with smaller portions going to mass transit. It's unlikely these revenues can be reduced without further damaging the nation's deteriorating transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates we are spending $110 billion too little each year to maintain the transportation system even at current levels. Meantime, the Congressional Budget Office predicts the Highway Trust Fund will run a $7 billion deficit this year and will continue to have deficits through 2020.
The biggest factor by far is the price of crude oil. It accounts for 68 percent of what we pay at the pump. It also affects our trade and budget deficits. The Congressional Research Service estimates that when petroleum costs $100 a barrel -- a price we've already exceeded -- our oil imports increase the U.S. trade deficit by $100 billion. Every $10 increase in the price of oil costs our military (in other words, taxpayers) $1.2 billion a day.
The balance of gasoline prices -- 20 percent -- goes for refining, distributing and marketing the fuel.
The biggest factor in price volatility is supply and demand. Also in the mix are increases in U.S. oil consumption during the summer, speculation in oil markets, what's happening in the Middle East and other countries from which we import petroleum, and the strength of the dollar. The least of the factors -- so small that it's overwhelmed by the others -- is domestic oil production.
Gasoline pricing is complex, but the politics are simple. Secretary Reich puts it this way:
This gusher (of oil profits) is an embarrassment for an industry seeking to keep its $4 billion annual tax subsidy from the U.S. government, at a time when we're cutting social programs to reduce the budget deficit. It's especially embarrassing when Americans are paying through their noses at the pump.
If that doesn't dissuade Republicans and oil-state Democrats from going to war on this issue, then we should ask some questions:
o How can the members of Congress who condemn federal budget deficits support subsidies the oil industry doesn't need?
o How do oil subsidies, some of which have been in place for generations, square with conservative mantras that the federal government shouldn't be picking winners or engaging in corporate welfare?
o How can Congress justify oil subsidies when they've been warned repeatedly by experienced senior military experts that, "Dependence on oil undermines America's national security on multiple fronts"?
Without question, there are issues on which the interests of the oil industry and the public coincide. The obligation of our political leaders is to detect where those interests diverge and, when a choice must be made, to choose on the side of the American people.
If gasoline prices become a huge issue in the 2011 elections, we will see who favors the blame game over solutions and who represents the welfare of oil companies over the welfare of the American people. I can see the first bumper sticker now: John Boehner. R-Ohio or R-Oil?
Follow William S. Becker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sustainabill