Drivers Learn to Cope With Pain at the Pump
Gas prices are hitting record highs, sending the nation into a spasm of shared angst. Average prices nationwide now exceed $3.22 for a gallon of regular, and many people are pledging to drive less while politicians agitate against "price gouging" and oil company profits.
Yawn. If recent history is a guide, nothing significant will ensue. While prices are expected to stay high through the summer, it seems Americans are unlikely to trim many miles from their life on the road. "How can I?" says Nick Wolfe while filling up his Land Rover SUV in a St. Louis suburb. "I'm a salesman and need to drive."
Drivers in a Washington Post/ABC News poll said it would take $4.38-a-gallon gas on average to make them cut back. So, Wolfe and most Americans will suck it up and absorb the cost, and the issue will fade along with prices next fall, well before Washington does anything noteworthy.
For one thing, Americans are wealthier than 30 years ago, limiting the effect of today's record prices. "Energy is a smaller part of the overall budget," says Stephen Brown, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Prices would have to rise another dollar before typical consumers would feel pinched as in 1980, according to estimates by the libertarian Cato Institute.
Still, prices have spiked 50 percent since late January and are expected to climb moreperhaps substantially if there's an active hurricane season, as predicted. Prices have already exceeded forecasts for the usual hikes that precede summer's driving seasonand are higher than last year, though the cost of crude oil, now $65 a barrel, is lower.
Energy experts cite surprising demand in U.S. markets for more gas. "At the same time, supply is struggling to keep up," says Rayola Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute. For some months, U.S. gas imports fell because less was available after political unrest in Nigeria and refinery problems in Venezuela. That coincided with operating problems at U.S. refineries, including several fires, further straining a system already slipping behind demand. No new American refineries have been built since 1976, and dozens have closed. Still, the industry produces more gas, mostly by adding capacity to existing sitesjust not enough to keep pace with demand.
The refinery issues are drawing attention in Washington, where suspicions abound that oil companies have conspired to reduce production. Mergers between oil companies give them more power to keep prices high, the Government Accountability Office said last week, alhough the Federal Trade Commission says it has found no evidence of gouging or collusion. "There is no smoking gun," concedes Daniel Weiss of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "But it doesn't look good."
His group's report, "Pain in the Gas," spotlights those most hurt by rising fuel prices: lower-income consumers. They cut vacations, gifts, dinners out, and savingsor, more likely, run up bigger credit card balances, say the authors. Swings in energy costs, more dramatic here than in other industrialized nations, also make it hard for consumers to plan. "The price signals are just out of whack," says study coauthor Christian Weller.