Who's to Blame for the High Price of Gas?

As gasoline prices rise to record highs, Americans across the country are feeling the impact.

"Nearly an entire day that I was paid in compensation is going to pay in gas and tolls," Mirian Schaer told ABC News in New York.

"If I've given up anything because of high gas prices, it's been driving," said Amanda Perkins in Los Angeles. "I have definitely cut back on that."

U.S. travel during the Memorial Day weekend is still expected to rise, but the AAA reported drivers would likely stay closer to home because of high cost of gas.

Other drivers, however, don't have the option of driving less — and they are upset.

"I think the gas prices are totally outrageous," said Michael Rowe who needs his car for work in New York City.

So, who's to blame?

The Fault of 'Big Oil'

When gasoline prices rise, many drivers often point to and blame "Big Oil."

In turn, oil company executives point to "market forces" to explain increases at the gas pump. In particular, they signal out the price of crude oil.

"More than half the cost of gasoline is attributable to the cost of crude oil," said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, in written testimony submitted to a congressional hearing examining higher gas prices.

"Oil companies do not set the price of crude. It is bought and sold in international markets, with the price for a barrel of crude reflecting the market conditions at the time of purchase," Felmy said.

In addition to higher oil prices, oil executives say that supplies are tight as demand continues to grow not only in the United States — where gasoline consumption is up 1 percent, compared to a year ago — but also in places like China and India where economies continue to boom.

Despite these explanations, what upsets many drivers is that higher prices have resulted in less money in their pockets and more in oil company coffers.

"I think it's appalling," said Schaer in New York reflecting on how much she had to pay to fill up her car.

Record Profits

In the first three months of this year, the five largest integrated oil companies made $29.5 billion in profits, up 4.5 percent from a year earlier.

That works out to $320 million a day, $13.4 million an hour, and $222,569 a minute.

It's profits like this that lead consumer advocates to argue for greater government oversight of the industry in order to help consumers who are paying more at the pump.

The Consumer Federation of America calculated that households now paid $1,000 more for gasoline each year compared to just five years ago.

According to the latest available figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2000 to 2005, Americans spent $722 more on gasoline.

"Today's high gasoline prices highlight fundamental problems in the industry," said Mark Cooper, the group's director of research in press release, "a lack of competition that enables oil companies to exploit a tight market."

Refinery Slowdowns

As an example of how the industry can do this, Cooper points to the 149 refineries in this country that process oil into gasoline. He argues that oil companies have underinvested in refining capacity and reduced stored inventories of gasoline to the point where they cannot perform any maintenance or changes without gasoline prices — and company profits — increasing.

"If you give them the benefit of doubt, then they have horribly mismanaged this industry," he told ABC News. "They can't switch from winter to summer fuels without driving up the price a buck and they get away with it."

Michelle Foss, chief energy economist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas in Austin, disagreed.

"Companies are not going to make gasoline when no one wants it and then sit around and wait for customers. Why would you do that?" she asked. "That's nuts. When you are in the time of year that no one wants gasoline — winter — you don't make much of it. Then, when you head into the driving season, you make the switch."

And just as oil companies say they don't set the price of oil, refiners say they don't set the price of gasoline.

"I would love to dispel this rumor that somehow refineries are holding back production because they see they can get profits later on," said Charles Drevna with the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. "Seeing where margins are now, you want to be running. You don't want to be shut down."

As of the week ending May 11, the government reported that refineries operated at nearly 90 percent of their total capacity, processing 15.3 million barrels of crude oil per day, up .5 percent from a year ago. The refineries produced 9.1 million barrels of gasoline per day, up from the previous week.

Consumer demand for gasoline, however, was 9.3 million barrels of gasoline per day, up 1 percent from a year ago. To meet this demand, the United States imported 1.5 million barrels of gasoline per day.

Congress Investigates

But drivers and elected officials have not been convinced by oil industry explanations. And as prices increase and oil profits grow, so do the number of congressional hearings and investigations by federal and state authorities.

May 8: House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on alternative fuels

May 9: House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming heard testimony from individuals and small businesses affected by higher gas prices.

May 10: House Science and Technology Committee examined green transportation.

May 15: Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee heard from government and industry analysts on the outlook for gasoline prices this summer.

May 16: House Judiciary Committee examined "whether anti-competitive practices in the oil and gasoline industry are causing record gas prices."

May 22: House Oversight Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing entitled "Gasoline Prices, Oil Company Profits and the American Consumer."

"The government doesn't set prices, but we do have a responsibility to prohibit price gouging and unfair manipulation of the markets," said Rep. Heather Wilson R-N.M., in her prepared statement during the Judiciary Committee hearing. "Opportunists should not be able to reap ill-gotten windfall profits on the backs of America's families, particularly when disaster strikes."

Wilson has introduced the Federal Energy Price Protection Act, which would prohibit price gouging at the federal level as there currently are no such laws. Only 30 or so states have regulations barring gouging.

Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak has introduced two oil- and gas-related bills: the Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act to "protect American consumers from being gouged at the pump" and the Prevent Unfair Manipulation of Prices, which would increase oversight of energy trading.

"By passing my two bills, Congress can reign in the excessive profits made by the oil companies and the speculation on unregulated energy markets," Stupak told the Judiciary Committee.

Analysts and energy traders who follow the industry are dismissive of these hearings and legislative proposals.

"Every time gasoline prices come on, we have these investigations, these show trials," said energy trader Phil Flynn with Alaron Trading.

"Last year it was oil company executives up there, then gasoline prices go back down and it's forgotten. It's more political theater."

Know It When You See It

And proving price gouging can be difficult if not impossible.

For example, when it comes to refineries, Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute, said, "Some firms may want [to] drive prices even higher by reducing the amount of product [gasoline, diesel] they sell, but trying to figure if they have done that is virtually impossible."

And, he pointed out, even if there was evidence that a firm had taken actions to produce less gasoline and other petroleum products that in turn drove prices up, it is not illegal. If, however, various oil companies and refiners colluded together, that would violate antitrust laws.

"Unfortunately, diagnosing that without a smoking gun document and anything short of that, it is very hard to second-guess decision-making of refineries."

Others argue gouging simply is not happening.

"Anybody who blames record high U.S. gasoline prices on 'gouging' at the pump simply reveals their total ignorance of global oil supply and demand fundamentals," wrote Paul Sankey, an oil analyst with Deutsche Bank, who testified before the Senate at the May 15 hearing.

"The real reason for high pump prices is the lack of global gasoline supply relative to demand. Just in the U.S,. overall U.S. refining capacity, at 17 million barrels per day, is far below demand at 22 million barrels per day."

The American Petroleum Institute, the trade group that represents and defends the oil industry, said that of the more than 30 investigations conducted by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general from 1973 to 2005 "all have exonerated the industry."

In the case of the investigation into price gouging after prices soared to then record highs after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the FTC concluded that it "found no instances of illegal market manipulation that led to higher prices."

The commission did find 15 examples of pricing at the refining, wholesale or retail level that met the definition of price gouging but that "other factors such as regional or local market trends, however, appeared to explain these firms' prices in nearly all cases."

The report, released in May 2006, also said, "Consumers understandably are frustrated to be told that no laws are being broken even as prices increase substantially. It is important that they gain a better understanding of the working of energy markets. Gasoline prices — and energy prices in general — depend on the actions of all consumers and producers, and those actions can be changed. They can be modified over time by policies designed to make supply more responsive to high prices or to shift demand toward alternative energy sources."

At the time, Cooper with the Consumer Federation of American said oil companies didn't need to manipulate prices.

"The industry has become so concentrated, that they do not have to collude to raise the price of gasoline. Each company acts individually and knows full well that its brethren will act in a parallel fashion."

Critics blame federal regulators for inadequate oversight and examination of the impact consolidation would have in the oil industry.

Blame Game

For others who follow the industry, they point out one group that often goes unmentioned when it comes to higher prices.

People, Foss said, "want all the gasoline in the world available to them at cheapest prices and somehow they don't want to have any of the problems from using energy the way we do. People have to be responsible."

She added, "If people change how they use gasoline or energy in general, it will change how companies provide it."

Industry analyst Kyle Cooper with IAF Advisors in Houston put it bluntly, "If you are driving down the road in an SUV, you better not be complaining about gas prices."

Speaking for millions of drivers who face no other choice, Tony Spiliotis told ABC News in Los Angeles, "There's really not a lot you can do."

But if prices go up even further — say $4 a gallon or even $5 — the shock may just lead more Americans to change how they drive.

"If it goes up to $5 a gallon," said Jason Rivera who works as a messenger in New York, "that's it. Then it's time to park it."