'Unethical behavior' to blame for gas prices - poll

62% of survey respondents say record runup in prices is fault of actions by players in the gasoline supply chain.

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By Beth Braverman, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The question nags at Americans every time they fill up their gas tanks: Why is it costing $4 a gallon?

A poll released Wednesday finds that 62% of Americans blame "unethical behavior" by industry players, while 32% attribute the price increases to supply and demand.

The CNN/Opinion Research Poll highlights a growing debate among American consumers, policymakers and oil executives over the exact causes of skyrocketing gas prices. Retail gas rose to another record Wednesday, with half the states in the nation paying more than $4 a gallon on average, according to AAA. Gas prices have risen nearly 9% from $3.718 last month and are 32% higher than the $3.066 average price a year ago.

The poll reflects telephone interviews with 1,035 adults conducted June 4-5. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points

While gas prices have taken a toll on consumer budgets, oil companies have seen record profits. Last month, industry executives faced lawmakers on Capitol Hill to explain those profits, which critics claim are excessive. The executives testified that the price runups belie tight margins and reflect fundamental economic factors such as a weak dollar, increased demand abroad for oil and speculative investment.

The weaker dollar encourages buying by investors who view oil and other commodities as a hedge against inflation. It also increases the appeal of dollar-denominated commodities like oil to overseas investors.

Industry analysts agree that the increased gas prices reflect complicated market forces rather than deliberate actions by individuals or corporations looking for profit.

"There's a solid supply-and-demand model that indicates that production is not growing for myriad reasons and demand continues to grow," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Ill.

Looking ahead, Ritterbusch believes that gas prices will level off by the end of the summer, although he declined to forecast an exact figure.

"The prices are already starting to choke off demand in the United States," he said. "That's going to spread overseas and to the emerging economies. We're also going to see concerted efforts to strengthen the dollar and we are going to see higher interest rates."

BP PLC (BP) chairman Peter Sutherland said Wednesday oil companies never expected demand for oil to surge so quickly, and they failed to make the investments needed to clear the supply bottleneck.

Consumer sentiment on gas prices has become a major election issue. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans blocked a proposal to tax the profits of the five largest U.S. oil companies and rescind an expected $17 billion in tax breaks for the companies over the next decade.

Analysts said the U.S. could help ease future gas prices by lifting restrictions on domestic oil drilling.

"We need to develop more sources of oil, not only globally but also in the United States," said Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Conn. "The United States has done very little to boost its capacity." To top of page

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