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Published: Friday, 7/18/2008

Michigan congressman looking for answers to ease pain at the pump

ANN ARBOR - U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) has even more reason than most of us to be concerned about the price of oil. His congressional district is easily the region's largest, in terms of square miles.

He represents all of the Upper Peninsula and a broad swath of the western lower Peninsula, all the way down to Bay City. Many of his constituents aren't wealthy, and have to drive long distances for work or to go shopping on the weekends. They aren't happy over the price of gasoline, and many of them are wondering who to blame.

Their congressman thinks he knows - and is trying to do something about it.

"Excessive speculation by those who have nothing to do with the oil industry is driving up energy costs for families and crippling our entire economy," he said flatly.

Mr. Stupak has assembled numbers that would seem to make his case.

Eight years ago, speculators with no ties to the oil and gas industry were involved in only 37 percent, or barely over a third, of energy trading. This year, speculators accounted for 71 percent.

That annoys the congressman as much as the price of gas annoys his constituents.

He is, in fact, more like his voters than many other congressmen. Now 56, Mr. Stupak was a policeman and state trooper for years, until a career-ending injury in 1984.

He then put himself through law school and served in the state legislature before winning what had usually been a Republican seat in Congress in 1992. He's been there ever since, still sporting a distinctive "yooper" accent.

And when Democrats regained control on Congress in 2006, Mr. Stupak got a powerful tool to try and find out answers: He is now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committees's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

That's a gavel the legendary John Dingell - now the committee chairman again - held for years. Mr. Stupak has been using it to hold hearings to get to the bottom of why oil prices have risen so far, so fast. Ten years ago, a barrel of crude oil was $10.92. Last summer it was about $70. This week, it was as high as $140 a barrel.

"That's excessive speculation," he told me in a telephone interview. What should the price be? "The experts before my committee say $60 - maybe $65 a barrel."

In an attempt to do something about that, the congressman has introduced a bill to tighten regulatory loopholes. "I don't know if I can get it all the way back, but I think we could roll the price back maybe 30 percent," to $90 or so a barrel, he said.

His attempts have gained him withering contempt from the financial markets. Jon Birger, a writer for CNN Fortune, said Mr. Stupak's hearings were a "circus." The journalist charged that if enacted, the congressman's bill would be "stupid public policy."

"By providing a mechanism for locking in prices, the futures market makes it easier for oil companies to make costly investments in new production - which is the key to lowering prices at the pump."

"Yeah, they've got a whole war room on Wall Street to attack me," the congressman said. He could have noted that despite the skyrocketing futures markets and record profits, the oil companies haven't built any new refineries in this country since 1976.

The congressman thinks his bill will become law this session, which may be too optimistic. But fighting for it isn't likely to hurt him or the Democrats at the polls either. During his first few tries for re-election, Michigan Republicans ran well-funded candidates in an effort to take back the seat.

Nowadays, the man from Marquette is seen as pretty much invincible, though Republicans will put a name (Tom Casperson) on the ballot. And if Mr. Stupak's bill can somehow get gas prices down, his voters may build him a monument.

Needed: More Great Lakes Protection? With considerable fanfare the governors of Michigan and Ohio signed the Great Lakes compact earlier this month. Once ratified by Congress, it is designed to protect the lakes from massive water diversions.

However, that's not the waterways' only problem. Last week, somebody apparently dumped what looks like hundreds of pounds of garbage, including medical waste, into Lake Michigan.

The garbage, apparently from Wisconsin, washed up on the shores in Manistee and Mason counties, sending local governments into overdrive cleanup mode. Public beaches had to be closed. And no one seemed to have a clue where it all came from, or why.



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