A Fuel’s Game 

The state’s “investigation” of gas prices wasn’t just a waste of time. It was also a waste of priorities.

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If there’s any more proof needed that affordable gasoline has become an American birthright, just look at the details behind the Utah Department of Commerce’s “investigation” of our local gas prices.

You’ll likely recall that since the worldwide decrease in oil prices of late, certain circles in Utah have been aghast that our gas prices weren’t falling at the same rate as gas prices in other states. Since few things make everyday folk angrier than prices at the pump, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. called for an investigation.

So the state asked 24 retailers for price information. Only four responded. The state asked all five of Utah’s refineries to report how much they paid for their crude. None responded. Indeed, the state has no way of compelling oil refineries or wholesalers to report how much they pay for crude or how much they charge consumers by the time it gets to the pump. Yet the Utah Department of Commerce stated in its recent report that “it appears that some retailers took an opportunity to increase profit margins as wholesale prices began to decrease.”

As far as action that might be taken, well, the state could pass a law requiring that retailers report profit margins to be sure no gouging takes place. And, hey, we might also consider building a few more pipelines and refineries in Utah for quicker access to supplies. If you’ve ever visited the Louisiana or Texas coasts, where refineries abound, you know just how appealing that sounds.

Now, the Utah Department of Commerce routinely carries out fine work year in and year out, protecting Utah consumers from all sorts of unsavory scams. This report, however, it must be admitted, was a joke. But don’t blame the fine folks at the department. Instead, blame Gov. Huntsman, who probably went against his better instincts and instead gave in to political opportunism when he ordered this sorry exercise in government accountability. As every good Republican knows, the market usually works just fine by itself. And one of the beauties of a free-market system is the manner in which it brutally exposes what we value by way of what we’re willing to pay for it.

What, then, is so radical about the idea that current gas prices in Utah might be supported by our gluttonous demand, and the fact that so many of us are willing to brave lengthy commutes from the suburbs? Not one damned thing, it turns out. In fact, it’s our national hallmark. The great American suburban commute defines us as a nation. It makes us obese and so increases our medical costs, produces ton after ton of emissions contributing to global warming and keeps us dependent on oil companies owned by our good friends in the governments of Russia, Iran and Venezuela. There is no national custom that screws us all so royally in so many ways.

But we know all this. We’ve known it for a long time. But does that stop us in Utah from whining even when gas prices are sliding downward? Hardly. We’ll whine even when gas prices are falling, but only because our prices aren’t falling as fast as everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, the sages of our Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee, for some inexplicable reason, won’t even look at a Salt Lake County list of transportation projects for approval that might benefit from a quarter-cent increase in sales tax under Proposition 3. Our highways sag under the weight of commuters, and everyone who enjoys the success of current TRAX routes longs for more extensions both south and west, yet the Legislature can’t be bothered. Rather than waste time requesting price information from gas retailers and wholesalers who also can’t be bothered, perhaps our governor should make a lunch date with a few key legislative players for a good, stern talk about the proper priority of public transportation projects on the legislative agenda. Or perhaps Gov. Huntsman thinks playing stupid games with local gas stations and oil refineries will somehow take care of our future transportation needs.

In the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I should state I’m not entirely blameless of my own criticisms. Despite easy access to a TRAX stop where I live, I don’t use it nearly as often as I should. My aging Subaru gets 24 mpg, a pale comparison to the Toyota Prius’ stunning 60 mpg. On the other hand, I made a very conscious decision to live close to work, which limits my commute to a manageable two-and-a-half miles each way.

This kind of personal information is relevant to another point: It’s only after exhausting every other possibility that most of us make the wise decision. If we believe most expert observers of oil prices, such as the International Energy Agency, the current drop in oil prices is only temporary and global demand for oil over the next 25 years will soar by 50 percent. We can berate the person behind the counter at our local gas station or, as they used to say once upon a time, we can prepare for the future.

The irony is that, with only 40 cents’ worth of average state and federal taxes per gallon of gasoline, no one pays less for a ride around the block than we do. Naturally we consume more, swelling the central banks of Iran and Venezuela. Canadians pay a tax of $1.03 per gallon while the Japanese pay a tax of $2.07 and the British pay a tax of $4.24 per gallon. Someway, somehow, the people there still live satisfactorily.

The great paradox of our relationship with foreign oil is that, while we’ve been hypnotized to believe low gas prices are good for us, in reality, cheap gas makes us obese, vulnerable to foreign governments, and hurts the environment. Whining about cheap gas not being cheap enough makes us annoying on top of all that.

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