The Gas Wars

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Robert Reich

The Gas Wars

Nothing drives voter sentiment like the price of gas – now averaging $3.56 a gallon, up 30 cents from the start of the year. It’s already hit $4 in some places. The last time gas topped $4 was 2008.

And nothing energizes Republicans like rising energy prices. Last week House Speaker John Boehner told Republicans to take advantage of voters’ looming anger over prices at the pump. On Thursday House Republicans passed a bill to expand offshore drilling and force the White House to issue a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. The tumult prompted the Interior Department to announce on Friday expanded oil exploration in the Arctic.

If prices at the pump continue to rise,  expect more gas wars.

In fact, oil prices are rising for three reasons — none of which has to do with offshore drilling or the XL pipeline.

The first, on the supply side, is Iran’s decision to cut in oil exports to Britain and France in retaliation for sanctions put in place by the EU and United States. Iran’s threat to do this has been pushing up crude oil prices for weeks.

The second, on the demand side, is rising hopes for a global economic recovery – which would mean increased oil consumption. The American economy is showing faint signs of a recovery. Europe’s debt crisis appears to be easing. Greece’s pending bailout deal is calming financial nerves on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Bank of England and European Central Bank are keeping rates low. At the same time, China has decided to boost its money supply to spur growth there.

Neither of these would have much effect were it not for the third reason — overwhelming bets of hedge funds and other money managers that oil prices will rise on the basis of the first two reasons.

Speculators have pushed crude oil to $105.28 per barrel, up 35 percent since September. Brent crude, Europe’s benchmark, is now $120.37 a barrel – also worrisome because many East Coast refineries use imported oil.

Funny, I don’t hear Republicans rail against speculators. Could that have anything to do with the fact that hedge funds and money managers are bankrolling the GOP as never before?

But that’s okay. The gas wars may come to a screeching halt before too long, anyway. So many bets are being placed on rising oil prices that the slightest hint the speculators are wrong – almost any sign of expanding supply or declining demand – will set off a sharp drop in oil prices similar to the record one-day fall on May 5 of last year.

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations; Locked in the Cabinet; Supercapitalism; and his newest, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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