There seems to be more gas spewing on the talk shows and the campaign trails lately than in the pipelines to the Midwest as Republicans heap blame on President Clinton, Vice President Gore and the Environmental Protection Agency for the spike in gas prices. The GOP and their amen lobby have called for suspension of gas taxes, relaxation of clean air regulations, more drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, even release of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves in the hopes of nudging pump prices down a few cents for the summer driving season.
But even after OPEC agreed to increase the supply of oil, industry analysts warned that it would not have an immediate impact on the price of gas because refineries already are producing at maximum levels to meet the demand.
The oil companies complain that the EPA has forced them to use special additives to cut down on carbon monoxide emissions, but the EPA responded that the reformulated gas should add no more than a few cents to the price at the pump. So why have the prices jumped 50 to 75 cents a gallon in markets like Chicago and Milwaukee? How about good, old-fashioned greed as an explanation?
Ask yourself what the oil companies gain by goosing the price up in the Midwest. First of all, of course, the high prices at the gas pump have brought windfalls for oil companies, which saw first-quarter profits this year rise up to 500 percent over the same period in 1999, Public Citizen noted.
Second, the oil companies complain that they are being forced by the EPA to use corn-based ethanol because the petroleum-based oxidant MTBE which they prefer to use has been found contaminating drinking water. They'd like to switch back.
Third, the Midwest will be a key battleground in the presidential race. High gas prices -- and the suggestion that the D's are to blame -- could move some of those suburban voters into the Republican column, put the EPA under their boy George W. Bush and get the agency off their backs.
Is it far-fetched to suggest that the oil companies might want to pitch in to get Bush elected president? Their executives and PACs already have showered Bush with more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions, compared with only $100,000 in chump change to Gore.
What should the government do? A good start is to send crews of Federal Trade Commission investigators to the offices of Big Oil to see if there is any evidence of collusion.
Then, Congress ought to do what Clinton proposed in 1993: Increase the gas tax. Don't reduce it. Invest the new revenues in health care for those who are choking on smog and expand mass transit, building light rail in the cities and rebuilding fast train service across the country, for the rest of us. Train service in Europe and Japan shows that people in the 21st century will support fast and reliable intercity transportation, as they used to in the USA.
Next week I have to rent a car to travel from Austin to Storm Lake, Iowa, population 10,000, because there is no bus, train or airline service anywhere near there. Much of the rest of the rural USA is similarly isolated.
Third, require the carmakers to stop their bellyaching and increase fuel efficiency on SUVs as well as regular cars.
When the House passed the $55 billion appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation on May 19, a "rider" was attached that prevents DOT from raising fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. They can't even consider fuel standards for light trucks or SUVs. Similar riders have been attached to DOT appropriations since 1996.
The Union of Concerned Scientists noted that if SUVs were as fuel efficient as the average car, fuel demand would be down 5 percent from a decade ago instead of being up 10 percent. On average, light trucks and SUVs use 42 percent more fuel than cars to travel each mile. Not only does this cost SUV drivers an extra $27 billion at the pump this year, but it drives up the prices for the rest of us.
The Sierra Club has estimated that if light trucks got the same gas mileage as the 27.5 mph standard for cars, we would save 1 million barrels of oil per day. If standards were raised to 45 mpg for cars and 34 mpg for light trucks, we would save 3 million barrels of oil daily, or nearly twice as much oil as we import daily from the Persian Gulf. Instead, the carmakers spend millions annually to keep those "riders" attached to DOT appropriations, and we keep burning more gas.
Those fuel efficiency standards are within reach. Honda and Toyota already are producing cars that exceed 60 mpg. Meanwhile the Big Three US carmakers have taken more than $1 billion in US government funds to develop a "clean car" with nothing to show for it -- and it will take them another couple years just to duplicate what the Japanese have done.
Higher gas taxes would give drivers an incentive to become more efficient in their use of fuel.
Finally, Congress should impose an excess profits tax to remove any incentive for the oil industry to create windfall profits by gouging consumers.
The contempt that the Democratic and Republican political handlers have for voters and democracy is demonstrated in their exclusion of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan from the presidential debates scheduled for this fall. The Democratic and Republican managers arbitrarily set a threshold of 15 percent in selected polls to qualify for the debates, knowing that neither Buchanan nor Nader are likely to gain that level of support without exposure in the debates.
Nader has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission, protesting that the debates, sponsored by corporations, are engineered to limit the debate to the two major party candidates and amount to an illegal corporate contribution to presidential candidates.
Nader argues that the debates should be open at least to those who are on the ballots of a majority of states and who poll at least 5 percent support -- which is the threshold at which parties become eligible for federal matching funds.
Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, and now co-chairs on the Commission on Presidential Debates, say they are merely representing the wishes of the American voter, but Jake Tapper of Salon.com notes that a Zogby poll taken in April showed 55 percent of Americans want Buchanan to be allowed to participate in the debates, and 51 percent want Nader, even if neither is at the 15 percent threshold.
Kirk holds that a candidate who has not reached 15 percent support by September ought to pack it in anyway, "Our role is not to jump-start your campaign and all of a sudden make you competitive," Kirk was quoted by Tapper.
But Jesse Ventura shot past the Democratic and Republican candidates and won the governor's race in Minnesota in 1998 largely because of his performance in televised debates. Ventura was included in the Minnesota debates because Hubert "Skip" Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, thought he would take votes from the Republican candidate. Before the first debate, Tapper noted, the most recent poll had Humphrey leading with 49 percent, the Republican with 20 percent and Ventura with only 10 percent.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want to repeat that "mistake" of letting an alternative candidate crash their carefully controlled party. If Nader got on the debates he would raise issues that neither Gore nor Bush want to talk about and Nader just might turn the election around. It is up to the people to force the establishment to open up the process and give us an honest debate. -- JMC