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Gary Gensler, right, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Mary Schapiro, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, testify before the House Financial Services Committee in Washington, DC. - 


Kai Ryssdal: That'd be July of 2009. With the recession firmly upon us and oil struggling to break $70 a barrel. Last year about this time it was a completely different story. Oil at $147, gas at $4 bucks or higher. And much speculation about speculation. Claims that supply and demand alone couldn't possibly be driving crude that high. Welcome back to today in Washington. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is considering new restrictions on speculative trading in oil and other energy markets. Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports.

SARAH GARDNER: During the Bush administration the free-market philosophy ruled. Federal regulators were loath to rein in Wall Street. But with Wall Street in the dog house and a Democrat in the White House, the mood has changed.

Regulators are set to crack down on speculative trading in energy markets. Barbara Shook is an analyst at Energy Intelligence Group. She says for hedge funds and investment banks, buying oil futures is essentially legalized gambling.

BARBARA SHOOK: They bet on prices going up and then they start betting the other way for prices to go down. And if they have enough money behind them, they can make markets move.

Shook says it's impossible to know exactly how big a role speculators play in oil price spikes. The sheer volume of energy futures trading is enormous and much of it takes place in unregulated "over-the-counter" markets.

But airlines and other businesses that depend on stable fuel prices insist speculators make energy markets more volatile. Sean Cota speaks for fuel buyers, including gas stations. He argues if supply and demand were the only factor affecting gas prices, they should be a dollar a gallon lower.

SEAN COTA: At this point in a weak economy not only is that damaging the retailer who's trying to sell enough gasoline to stay in business but that money is a tax on consumers.

Regulators may limit the number of futures contracts a trader can hold at one time. But traders warn if the government cracks down too much it will reduce the number of players in energy markets and hurt liquidity.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner