GASOLINE PRICES: WHY SO HIGH?

Here’s issue #22 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 3/5/12. This issue takes a look at gasoline prices and why they are so high.

Gasoline prices have been rising and have become an issue in the presidential campaign. So why are prices so high and is there anything that can be done about it?

Current gas prices are NOT driven by supply and demand. Supplies of oil and gas are up and demand in the US is down; so basic economics says that the price should be low. According to the Energy Information Administration, supply is higher than three years ago when gas prices fell (briefly) to around $2.00. And demand is at the lowest level since April 1997. [1] The US is actually producing more oil and gas than we can use, so we are exporting 3 million barrels of oil products per day. [2] All of this suggests that gas prices should be low.

Tension over Iran and concern about the oil it supplies to world markets is putting some upward pressure on oil prices. Financial speculators see this as an opportunity to make money and jump into the market heavily, which drives prices up much more. Wall Street firms and other financial players dominate the buying and selling of oil, even though they have no intention of ever taking possession of the oil they buy. Ten years ago, producers and end users (airlines, oil refiners and retailers, etc.) were responsible for 70% of the trading of oil; now the financial speculators make up 65% – 80% of the market. The only reason they are in the market is to make money and the money they make comes out of our pockets through higher prices. [3]

Estimating how much speculation increases the price of oil and gasoline is difficult; however, many experts, including ones from Exxon Mobil, Delta Airlines, and Goldman Sachs, believe that speculation drives up the price of oil by 40%. This is a “speculators’ tax” that we all pay. There is historical evidence to support this. For example, in the summer of 2008, when speculators were driving the oil market, gas prices spiked to over $4.00 a gallon before declining sharply to $2.00. [4]

Congress and the President tried to reduce the impact of this speculation as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. The law directed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates this market, to set a cap on how many contracts for oil any one trader or company could control, which would limit the level and impact of speculation. After significant delays, such a cap was proposed in October 2011. However, many supporters of the cap view the proposal as quite weak. Nonetheless, the speculators are suing to block the implementation of even this modest reform. [5]

Through speculation in the oil markets, the Wall Street-based financial industry is making substantial sums of money that are coming out of the pockets of average Americans. The motivation is to make money for the few; however, there’s no added value for society at large, only costs. This is a variation on the theme that also drove the subprime mortgage market – make money regardless of the consequences. Due to campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government – in other words, due to crony capitalism – it’s likely that nothing significant will be done and we will all continue to pay this “speculators’ tax.” As a result, the Wall Street speculators will get richer while we get poorer as we pay more for gas than we should.


[1]       Sanders, B., 2/28/12, “Wall street greed fueling higher gas prices,” CNN.com

[2]       McClatchy Newspapers, 2/21/12, “Once again, speculators behind sharply rising oil and gasoline prices,” The Sacramento Bee

[3]       McClatchy Newspapers, see above

[4]       Sanders, B., see above

[5]       Common Dreams staff, 3/2/12, “Obama’s oil speculation task force missing in action,” CommonDreams.org

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