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Published: Sunday, 3/12/2000

Gas gouging reflects a poor energy policy

You've got to feel some sympathy for the poor bloke taking your money these days at the local gas station. That minimum wage earner has to be subject to all kinds of abuse from customers peeved over price increases. Most drivers don't know OPEC from Oprah or why some zillionaire sheihks are fiddling with oil outlays again. They just know the price of gas suddenly went through the roof at their regular self-serve pumps.

Behind the station counter, all Junior has to do is reach for the customer's credit card to unleash the fury of those paying for the perceived gas gouging by corporate and international oil players. Manipulating oil production in Kuwait to get the most bang for the barrel in the world of supply and demand is shrewd business. But that profit-making reality doesn't mean diddly to SUV-loving Americans forced to pour more of their hard-earned bucks down the enormous gas tanks of their road warriors.

Come summer, smack in the middle of the busiest driving season, U.S. gasoline prices will be outrageously high from their recent outrageously low levels. The motoring public got spoiled with those 80 and 90-cent per gallon bargains. But the proud owners of Goliath motoring machines like the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator had to have known the inefficient gas mileage of their palatial four-wheelers would catch up with their pocketbook eventually.

With gas prices expected to surge toward the $2 psychological barrier - perhaps breaking through it in places like California - even Americans riding the crest of a robust economy are grumbling about being taken for a ride at the gas pumps. Customers have no leverage; they have to pay whatever it takes to fill their tanks.

Forget comparison gas shopping or barely coasting on fumes into a station with significantly cheaper gas. Gasoline sticker shock will be everywhere, on every corner from BP to Sunoco to Speedway and myriad petroleum oases in between.

If a gallon of gasoline selling at $1.50 depresses you, just wait. Add at least 20 cents or more to a gallon by May. The Energy Department says even if the oil exporting countries decide to boost production in the next couple of weeks to ease a worldwide shortage, the move would be too late to stop U.S. gas prices from soaring.

Adding to the fear of costly fill-ups is the department's observation that U.S. gasoline stocks are "alarmingly low." If supplies get too tight, drivers could be queuing up for gas the way they did during the oil embargo of the 1970s. Then, as now, national attention focuses on the worrisome short term, instead of the more troubling long term that makes us beholden to members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

We are so dependent on their oil we spent billions on their behalf waging the Gulf war and digging in indefinitely to defend their oil fields from outside threats. The least OPEC could do was give us a lifetime guarantee of cheap gas in return, but noooooooooo. We have been reduced to the diplomatic indignity of pleading with OPEC to pump more oil before high demand and low gasoline inventories play havoc with the U.S. economy.

Be glad you don't live in the Northeast, where folks will barely recover from exorbitant heating oil costs to shoulder exorbitant gasoline prices. Always at such times of national distress over sporadic hikes in gas prices, there are a few lone voices in the country chastising the government for allowing itself to be put in such a predicament.

These are the same voices that have prodded lawmakers time and time again to formulate a cohesive, far-reaching energy policy that would protect Americans from the whims of foreign oil suppliers by enabling them to provide their own energy needs. But politicians know the nation would rather take the cheap and easy way out of satisfying its energy resources by relying on imported oil, even if that means occasionally paying a high price for such dependence.

Perhaps the price for a gallon of gas hasn't risen high enough yet for the nation to willingly invest in the initial expense of developing an energy policy that could wean the country off OPEC's pipeline.

So complain to poor Junior collecting your money at the gas pumps, but expect more of the same as long as the country drifts into the future without any serious blueprint for a self-sustaining, workable energy plan.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer.



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