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Monday, May 01, 2006

The Gas Price Adjustment - by Robert Kuttner

Politicians of both parties, particularly Republicans, are scrambling to deal with the voter pain of $3-a-gallon gasoline. President Bush wants a $100 tax rebate to help consumers pay for more costly fuel and more tax credits for people who buy (mostly Japanese-made) hybrid cars. He has revived the recurring Republican idea of drilling in Alaska's wilderness. He proposes to suspend federal purchases for the national petroleum reserve. ''Every little bit helps," Bush said, rather pitifully. Next, he'll be wearing Jimmy Carter's sweaters.
 
Democrats' ideas include the proposal by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey to suspend temporarily the (industrial world's lowest) federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon to be offset by an excess-profits tax on oil companies, a federal investigation of price gouging, and demands that Bush ''jawbone" his chums at the oil companies and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wants oil companies to start paying long-avoided royalties for petroleum drilled on federal lands.
 
The oil companies, meanwhile, are practicing damage control. Their full-page newspaper ads show (accurately) that oil profits as a percent of sales are modest. But wait a minute: the higher the retail price, the higher the profit -- and the percentage stays the same. They could make the same claim if gas went to $10 a gallon. Their profits relative to invested capital are off the charts. ExxonMobil just released its first-quarter profits: more than $8 billion -- its highest ever. ExxonMobil CEO Lee R. Raymond, who recently retired, was paid $400 million last year.
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