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By Eric Stirgus March 23, 2011

Isakson: Obama policies fuel higher gas prices

Some Republicans have repeated an interesting claim about rising gas prices.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., joined them in a Twitter post.

"Just the Facts: Since President Obama took office, gas prices have gone up 67 percent," the senator wrote.

Isakson included a link to an article with a chart from the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundationthat found gas prices rose 7 percent during the first two years and two months of Republican George W. Bush’s presidency as compared with prices during a similar time span under Barack Obama, a Democrat who took office in January 2009.

We figured Isakson was trying to make a case that Obama is not doing enough to cap rising gas prices. Isakson’s spokeswoman, Lauren Culbertson, told us her boss was indeed making that argument. She said the Obama administration has "contributed to the increase in gas prices" by:

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  • Restricting domestic energy production.
  • Pushing for expanded cap-and-trade regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Proposing increased energy taxes of up to $90 billion over the next 10 years in his budget.

Some experts dispute the argument that the president can do much about gas prices, saying they are a combination of many factors, such as demand from motorists and nations such as China, along with the rising cost per barrel for crude oil. The United States gets most of its crude oil from Canada, Mexico and OPEC nations such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela.

"[The president] has limited control over gas prices," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for, an organization aimed at helping motorists find the best gas prices.

First, let’s look at whether the Heritage Foundation got its numbers right.

Crude oil accounts for two-thirds of the price of a gallon of gasoline, according to the federal government. About 10 percent of the cost comes from refining it. About another 10 percent goes toward distribution and marketing. About one-eighth of the cost of gasoline is for taxes.

The foundation’s chart (exact numbers weren’t on the article) shows that average gas prices were slightly below $2 when Bush took office in January 2001. The chart shows prices rose slightly, but were still below $2 in February 2003. Their chart shows gas prices were just below $2 when Obama became president in January 2009 and were $3.10 in February 2011. The Heritage Foundation adjusted its figures for inflation.

The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $1.51 the week Bush took office, according to the federal government’s Energy Information Administration. Prices were $1.74 for regular during the last week of February 2003, the EIA reported. That’s a 15.2 percent increase.

By contrast, EIA figures show the average price for a gallon of regular the week Obama took office was $1.83 and has risen steadily since he moved into the White House. During the last week of February, it was $3.34. That is an 82.5 percent increase.

Isakson’s math, courtesy of the Heritage Foundation, is actually lower than the federal government’s totals.

Now, is the context Isakson used to present these numbers on target?

Isakson believes the president should allow more deepwater offshore oil drilling. Obama ordered a moratorium after the disastrous BP oil spill in 2010. The Obama administration approved its first permit since the oil spill, The Associated Press reported last month.

Obama has said domestic oil production rose to a seven-year high in 2010, but others contend that is a result of policies set in place under Bush.

The president has threatened to open the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to control prices. DeHaan compared that tactic to a classic children’s story.

"That typically cools the market off," DeHaan said. "But we’ve seen so many claims that the traders also discard it. It’s like the boy who cries wolf."

Gas price analysts such as DeHaan and H. Rao Unnava, a marketing professor at Ohio State University, say market speculation and concerns about political unrest in the Middle East have resulted in a rise in crude oil prices in recent months.

In general, they say, gas prices are largely a result of supply and demand.

Federal government data shows fuel consumption rose each year between 2001 and 2007. The average price for regular gasoline also rose in each of those years. The average price rose again in 2008, when the entire nation was feeling the recession, but consumption fell. Consumption has remained steady since while gas prices have risen since the end of 2008.

"I don’t think [rising gas prices] would have much to do with President Bush or President Obama," said Unnava, associate dean of undergraduate programs at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

Unnava said when gas prices shot past $3 a gallon in the summer of 2006, some conservatives blamed it on increasing demand, particularly in other countries such as China and India. Twenty years ago, China was not among the top five oil consumers. Today, China is second to the U.S.

So where does this leave us? There are two elements to Isakson’s claim: the actual statistics and his implication that Obama is to blame for rising gas prices.

Isakson’s precise statement about gas prices is accurate. They have increased. But the overall statement, intended as a political broadside, leaves out important details and takes things out of  context. We rate this claim Half True.

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Isakson: Obama policies fuel higher gas prices

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