Congress still dancing around gas prices

John Dimsdale May 3, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: And the scramble on Capitol Hill to do something about gas prices continues. The Senate’s trying to bounce back after its idea for a $100 gas-tax rebate went bust. Over in the House, representatives considered two bills to ease the pain at the pump. But critics claim Congress is only tinkering at the edges of the real problems. Marketplace’s John Dimsdale reports from Washington.

JOHN DIMSDALE: The first bill offered incentives for the oil industry to build more gasoline refineries, making old military bases available for locations and streamlining the federal, state and local government approval process for new licenses. Opponents, though, said gasoline refiners already have plans to boost capacity without government land or licensing help — and the bill was defeated.

The second bill, which passed, requires the Federal Trade Commission to establish an official definition of price gouging and sets new criminal penalties for violators. Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton is one of the sponsors.

REP. JOE BARTON: If the spike in gasoline prices are due to anything other than market conditions, consumers have a right to count on us the government for protection from these ripoffs.

Oil companies complain every time gasoline jumps in price, the government looks but never finds any price gouging. The first congressional investigation into high gas prices was 1923, according to Daniel Yergin, the author of a history of the oil industry titled “The Prize.”

DANIEL YERGIN: The famous progressive senator, Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, convened hearings and warned if nothing was done, gasoline prices would soon hit a dollar a gallon. But as it turned out, despite the predictions, gasoline prices went down very sharply.

. . . To 10 cents a gallon. Yergin says rising oil profits in the early 20s sparked a tremendous worldwide search for new supplies. His solution now? Fix the instability in oil countries like Nigeria and Iran.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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