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Price gouging can be defined as “pricing above the market when no alternative retailer is available.” Sure, gas prices are higher than most of us might like, but this recent talk about collusion among oil companies to gouge consumers is rubbish, and our elected officials know better.

Unfortunately, rather than admitting their own recent mistakes are at least partially to blame for high gas prices, Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, along with Rep. Heather Wilson, are pointing their fingers at big oil.

First, the facts on so-called price gouging. Unlike the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak and public schools, oil companies face real competition. Why else would gas stations display their prices so publicly? If these companies could really manipulate prices at will, why wouldn’t they have colluded to sell gas for $3 a gallon five years ago, when prices were low?

In a competitive environment, if you choose to purchase a product or service from someone, whatever the cost, price gouging is simply not taking place. If it were, then those of us who purchased homes when prices were low and are planning to sell for double and even triple the original price are gouging, too.

The real wild card is, of course, Congress. While talking up the gouging issue, our elected officials seem unwilling to face up to their own mistakes, so they have chosen to demonize the oil industry.

In an effort to promote policy solutions instead of useless name-calling, New Mexico’s congressional delegation, especially the ringleaders on price gouging – Domenici, Bingaman and Wilson – should consider the following ideas provided by the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

Open a small portion of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas production. If there is as much oil as the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimate shows, this would increase America’s proven domestic oil reserves by approximately 50 percent. There is majority support in both the House and Senate for opening the refuge, but an obstructionist minority blocked enactment last year. The Senate again voted 51 to 49 earlier this year to open the refuge.

Open the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico offshore areas to oil and natural gas production. America’s deep-sea reserves are potentially enormous, but – except for the western Gulf of Mexico, which is the United States’ largest producing oil field today – they have been put off limits by the federal government. Environmental concerns about deep-sea production are unwarranted. The last significant offshore oil spill in the United States was in 1969. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last summer destroyed many oil rigs and platforms in the gulf but did not cause any significant spills. Congress should enact legislation this year to open offshore areas currently under moratorium and share federal royalties 50-50 with the states involved.

Repeal the new ethanol mandate included in the energy bill passed last year. The new mandate requires refiners to double their 2005 use of ethanol to 7.5 billion gallons per year by 2012. Higher demand is causing ethanol prices to soar. The mandate will require 22 percent of the U.S. corn crop to provide 4 percent of gasoline supplies. Repeal the current 54-cents-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. Domestic ethanol producers already receive 51 cents per gallon in federal subsidies. They don’t need any more protection.

All-too-often, our elected officials look for short-term electoral gains at the expense of sound policy objectives. We are now reaping the consequences of an energy bill that has failed economically and politically. Rather than enacting unwise price-gouging legislation, New Mexico’s elected officials should use their influence to promote a healthier debate focusing on real solutions.

Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, which describes itself as an “independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.”