Energy prices: Promises, promises

Politicians talked a lot about getting a handle on costs. Here's what they've actually done.

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- When gasoline prices raced toward $3 a gallon back in May, the fiery rhetoric from Washington was non-stop.

There were press conferences at gas stations, podium pounding in Congress and near lovefests in ethanol-producing corn fields. Sue OPEC. Abolish the gas tax. Break up the oil companies. Or least take more of their money.

Now that the Congressional elections are upon us, looks back at those proposals to see which were tried, which passed, and which were mere attempts to placate agitated American motorists.

Of course, progress in Washington can vary depending on who you ask.

Democrats, who generally pushed for more conservation-minded bills, say little was accomplished.

Republicans, focusing on boosting domestic production, point to several bills that passed the Republican-controlled House only to get bogged down in the Senate, where the Republican majority isn't as large.

But no matter where the problem lies, the end result was largely the same.

"It's my impression that not much has been done at all," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for the motorists' organization AAA.

Even though oil and gasoline prices have dropped in the last few weeks, they still remain relatively high, largely due to tight supply, high demand and geopolitical tensions.

As Sundstrom said, "Long term, most of these problems haven't gone away."

While some progress has been made in energy policy in the last couple of years, notably increased federal funding for alternative technologies, here's how lawmakers fared on some of things they proposed since May:

Boost domestic production: Of all the bills introduced on energy, this one has come the furthest, although its prospects remain dim.

A House version would allow drilling off nearly all U.S. shoreline. A Senate version opens up a much smaller area in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless the two are reconciled, both will die - and neither side is backing down.

A similar bill to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge passed the House but got nowhere in the Senate.

Build more refineries: The House streamlined the permitting process for refinery construction. The bill died in a Senate committee after Democrats, backed by at least one Republican, said it would compromise environmental safeguards.

Close royalty loopholes: News that some oil companies drilling on Federal land were skimping on royalties due to a contract loophole caused a furor this summer.

But attempts to renegotiate the leases resulted in the matter being sent to the General Accounting Office for more study.

"With all of these things, when they can't come to an agreement on how to do it, it ends up being a study," said Bill Wicker, a Democratic staffer on the Senate Energy Committee.

Prohibit price gouging: At least one bill passed the House making it a federal crime to charge "unconsciously excessive" prices, but it's thought to be little more than symbolism.

"Since it doesn't say what that is, I can't tell you what it means," said John Eichberger, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

The bill is currently in the Senate waiting to be taken up.

Make vehicles more fuel efficient: This is a Democrat favorite but often runs into stiff opposition from automakers, who say Americans don't buy them.

Wicker said there were a number of bills introduced in the Senate to raise fuel efficiency, but none made it out of committee.

A Republican staffer who asked not to be identified said there's a bill the the house to grant the Department of Transportation authority to set fuel efficiency standards based on car size, and that should in turn raise those standards.

Extending tax breaks for hybrid cars: Wicker said tax breaks for a host of renewable technologies, set to expire at the end of the year, are likely to be extended.

Suspend the Federal gas tax: This never stood a chance.

"That was just a sound bite," said Eichberger. "We passed a $290 billion highway bill last year. How are we going to pay for it?"

Sue OPEC for price fixing, break up the oil giants: There are a number of people, and not just crusading politicians, that say the mergers of the 1990s that created oil giants ExxonMobil (Charts), Chevron (Charts) (which now includes Texaco) and ConocoPhillips (Charts) are bad for consumers and the U.S. oil industry.

But like the OPEC call, few thought this would ever go anywhere.

"A lot of this stuff was just to create the illusion that something happening," said Wicker.

Windfall profits tax: Nothing has come of this of yet but, along with raising fuel efficiency standards, it could be one to watch, especially if the Democrats gain power.

"You'll see a lot of these bills again in January," said Wicker. "They'll come right back out."

The Republican staffer said the House had done its part, and now attention will return to the Senate.

"We're going to continue to push the Senate to pass these bills," said the staffer.


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Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
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