Gas prices are up, but drivers aren't to blame

A gasoline station attendant pumps diesel into a car at a filling station on March 23, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.

Kai Ryssdal: Crude oil closed above $101 a barrel today in New York -- up more than 2 percent.

It's the first time since June we've been in triple digits. In the last month alone, prices have spiked more than $25 a barrel. So what's happened to make that happen? Here's our senior business correspondent Bob Moon.


Bob Moon: With no obvious developments driving up oil prices, analysts are once again left to speculate that speculators are behind it.

That's been a common theme this year. President Obama started pointing fingers back in April. As pump prices hovered above $4 in some places, he vowed to investigate possible market manipulation.

Barack Obama: We're going to make sure that nobody's taking advantage of American consumers.

When that had little effect on prices, he put 30 million barrels from the nation's strategic reserves on the market. Prices stayed above last year's levels all summer, but there was some relief, says Daniel Weiss with the think tank Center for American Progress.

Daniel Weiss: In fact, the sale of our reserve oil did work. The price of oil was down by 17 percent by the time the last sale was completed.

At Energy Intelligence Group, analyst Barbara Shook says tapping the reserves bought four months of distraction from the tough medicine we face: Scaling back our dependence on oil.

Barbara Shook: It's about as effective as giving a small child a lollipop after an injection. It's supposed to make you feel better, but it doesn't really take the pain away.

Shook argues speculation is an essential part of a free market. But Daniel Weiss says pending federal restrictions -- on the amount of oil or other commodities that investors can buy -- should help.

Weiss: The speculators play the market to make a quick profit, without ever having intention of taking possession of the commodity.

Oil analyst Carl Larry points out there's a possible silver lining: The economic recovery.

Carl Larry: When we see oil prices go up because speculators are investing into it, it means that people have faith demand's going to grow.

And since retirement funds are behind a lot of that money, he says many of us could actually be those speculators.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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