Politics aside, a president can do little to lower gasoline prices

By Bart Chilton

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks in the White House briefing room in Washington, Monday, Aug. 20, 2012. The President has recently come under fire for rising gas prices.

Associated Press

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If you listen to complaining campaigners, you'd think President Obama was the guy outside the service station with that long pole who changes gas prices on the sign. The reality is that no president can do much to impact energy prices in the short term. But, that's not convenient to say in an election year sound bite.

The highest gas prices in history were in 2008 when the nationwide average reached $4.11 per gallon, when President Bush was in office. That record still holds. The current nationwide average is around $3.82 per gallon. Yet, in 2008 when candidate Obama gave his convention speech, he rightly didn't criticize President Bush for high gas prices. Gov. Mitt Romney scolded the incumbent for allowing gas prices to increase on his watch. I suppose that's politics.

What can be done by any White House in the short term amounts primarily to one thing: using our Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The president used it last year (in cooperation with many other nations) and gas prices decreased — although only for a short time. The reserve, however, really is for the direst circumstances. While using it is at the discretion of presidents, historically they've been reluctant to do so.

Presidents can, and have, tried to address gas and other energy prices through longer-term policies. Obama, for example, sought to end excessive speculation in energy and other markets by limiting the large positions any trader may hold. That law will start to be implemented in October. He also called for increased penalties for those manipulators, and an end to tax breaks for oil companies who have made record profits. His energy policy will — long after he is out of office — cut by half the amount we all pay for fuel by requiring more efficient vehicles (54 miles-per-gallon by 2025).

Plus, his energy policy promotes other fuel sources (wind, bio-based products, solar, hydro and clean coal to name a few). To some extent, that's already working. We have become over 70 percent self-sufficient in energy in the United States. In fact, for the first time since 1949 we (for the last two years) have exported more oil and fuel products than we have imported.

The tricky thing with gas prices is that the longer-view policies take time to go forward, and reaching political agreement is evasive on something that doesn't have an instant impact and that can't be touted in the next election. That's why it is just easier for some to blame a president ... even when it is exceedingly incorrect.

Bart Chilton is a commissioner on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the author of "Ponzimonium: How Scam Artists Are Ripping Off America."

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