The Beacon

The Real Reason for High Gas Prices, Redux

Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Soledad Esnaola

Editor's note: This post by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless was originally posted last May on Politico.com. We think it couldn't be more relevant right now, especially considering that many media outlets are now making similar arguments to the one we've been making since last year - that gas prices aren't tied to offshore drilling.

Why do we take terrible risks to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts?

Most people would say we drill to protect ourselves from big fluctuations in gasoline prices that are caused by major upheavals in the Middle East.

Their argument is that the more oil we can produce domestically, the lower the price we’ll pay at the pump. It’s not that they like the sight of oil wells off our beaches. The main reason they argue for more offshore oil drilling is they think it will save money — especially since gas prices approached $4 a gallon recently. (See: A chart of U.S. gas prices here.)

This idea is not only intuitively appealing. It is repeatedly and unambiguously promoted by important government officials from both the Democratic and the Republican parties. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) defended legislation that would expand offshore oil drilling, saying “this bill would do more to lower gas prices at the pump than any other plan.” Meanwhile, Sarah Palin criticized President Barack Obama, saying, “His war on domestic oil and gas exploration and production has caused us pain at the pump.”

Former President George W. Bush, who had private-sector oil industry experience, said it could “take pressure off gasoline prices over time by expanding the amount of American-made oil and gasoline.” And Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, insists, “Gas prices are closing in on $4 per gallon … because of the de facto moratorium on drilling permits.”

Pundits, like Steve Doocy of Fox, endorse the argument, saying that the solution to rising gas prices is to “just poke a hole in the ground.”

Yet during the past two years, the amount of oil pumped in the U.S. has been going up, not down — as one might infer from all these comments. So this strongly stated argument to increase domestic oil drilling is wrong.

Examine the facts. The Energy Information Administration data show the price at the pump closely mirrors the international price of oil, not the percentage of oil coming from imports. (A chart comparing the U.S. gasoline prices and the percent of oil we import can be found here.)
 
Now, consider the price of unleaded gasoline at the pump compared with the international price of crude oil (See: A chart comparing U.S. gasoline prices and international crude oil prices here.)

Which do you think does a better job of explaining the changes in the price of gasoline at the pump? Your common-sense reading of the charts is correct. The price of gasoline at the pump is not statistically correlated with the share of U.S. consumption of imported oil, but it is highly correlated with the international price of imported crude.

This seemingly counterintuitive result is consistent with how the world’s oil markets actually operate. Ask yourself this question: When BP or any other big oil company finds oil in the Gulf of Mexico, does it sell it to us at a discount because we were kind enough to let them drill in America?

No, it doesn’t. It sells it all over the world at the price set in the international oil market. As an international commodity, oil is priced on an international basis — according to global supply and demand. Global demand is the reason the price is going up now. The world’s economies are recovering from the slump of the past few years and the developing economies, like China, are increasing their demand.

Meanwhile, offshore drilling is simply too risky for our beaches and fisheries. Want proof? Oil company shareholders insist on having a law limiting their liability in the event of a disaster.

I don’t think these risks are worth it. You might disagree. But if you do, remember: Anyone who tells you we should do offshore oil drilling to lower our price at the pump doesn’t care about the facts.

Most Viewed


Browse by Date