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

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."

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