Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Who to blame for the price at the pump? Tough to say

Demonstrators rally along a busy road in Tampa, Fla., to protest the Obama administration's energy policies.
Demonstrators rally along a busy road in Tampa, Fla., to protest the Obama administration's energy policies.

$3.84 a gallon.

Three-eighty-FOUR! For one lousy gallon, one milk jug’s worth of gasoline.

The cost of a fill-up? Don’t even get us started.

Whose fault is it?

Keystone. China. Obama. PolitiFact has heard it all. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve checked more than a dozen statements and ads about gas prices. In most every case, we’ve found politicians oversimplifying their attacks, or just plain getting the facts wrong.

Did you hear the one about the single-day gas protest in 1997 that forced prices down overnight?

Well, it never happened.

In reality, the price of gas is determined by a litany of complex and shifting factors (Brent derivatives, anyone?), few of which you’ll hear mentioned in :30-second political ads. But politicians are interested less in cause, more in effect.

The effect in this case: your anger.

Just on Friday, a handful of demonstrators gathered during morning rush hour along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Tampa, waving signs at passing commuters declaring "Change at the Pump" and "Obama Unfit for Unleaded."

The Republican Party of Florida organized the rally, the first of several planned across the state.

"This is people’s pocketbooks," party chairman Lenny Curry said. "This president has not focused on the economy. It’s too late to throw band-aids on it."

Between now and November, expect plenty of discussion and promises about gas prices.

We heard one from Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher, who said the United States could drop the price of gas to $2 a gallon by opening just one Alaskan reserve to drilling.

Fincher, a Republican, said the figure came from studies.

Except no studies say that.

And no one has a crystal ball.

And for gas to hit $2 again, the price of crude oil would have to plummet by half.

PolitiFact’s ruling: False.

Or how about this one: 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, now a commentator for Fox News, recently charged that President Barack Obama’s "refusal" to grant permits for offshore drilling is causing pain at the pump.

But PolitiFact found 140 permits for new deep-water wells that have been issued since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Truth-O-Meter says: Pants on Fire!

Obama is the primary target in this clash, but he doesn’t get pinned with all the blame. Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson recently fingered speculators who gamble on the oil markets at the expense of the rest of us.

"One statistic is really telling: The share of the oil market controlled by speculators has more than doubled over the past 10 years," Nelson wrote in an April 16 POLITICO opinion piece. "At the same time, gas has gone from $1.56 a gallon to an average of $3.90 or more a gallon."

PolitiFact found that noncommercial trading on the oil markets — people betting on future oil prices without actually purchasing the commodity — has increased significantly. But is it driving up the price?

One expert told us that volatility is how speculators make a profit.

"If the price is the same every day they can’t make money," said Sean Cota, outgoing chairman of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, which represents gasoline stations, convenience stores and heating oil businesses.

But the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which has chronicled the growth of crude oil futures contracts, cautions that a link between volatile energy prices and speculators is unproven. Part of the problem is that most activity goes on in the over-the-counter derivatives market, which is less transparent.

The statement ultimately rated Half True.

Let’s move on to this whopping claim from the American Energy Alliance, an industry-backed group that’s airing TV ads in Florida:

Gas prices have doubled, its ad says, because "Obama opposed exploring for energy in Alaska. He gave millions of tax dollars to Solyndra, which then went bankrupt. And he blocked the Keystone pipeline. So we will all pay more at the pump."

First, Alaska. Obama opposes drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area preserved to protect birds, plants and animals such as caribou, polar bears and gray wolves, as well as their habitat. But his administration has approved plans for drilling in other parts of Alaska, including one that could let Shell sink new rigs in two Alaskan offshore areas as soon as this summer.

Next, did the collapse of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that got millions in federal loans and then went belly up, contribute to high gas prices?

That tank is empty. Same goes for the link to Keystone XL, the proposed pipeline extension to carry oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, which Obama delayed. Experts say it’s plausible that Keystone’s construction could reduce future gas prices, but to say a pipeline proposed in 2008, originally scheduled for completion in 2013, has anything to do with gas prices in 2012 — well, it’s just plain wrong.

On the Truth-O-Meter, that translates to False.

The upshot: we’re being gouged and duped at the same time. And while it would be hard to give up our cars, we can at least tune out the dubious sound bites.