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Fill the tank but don't buy into partisan hooey

Good news for Memorial Day weekend: Since peaking at a national average of $3.93 on April 5, the price of regular gasoline has fallen almost 25 cents per gallon. That's like a $25 billion tax cut for consumers. In fact, gasoline is cheaper now than it was a year ago at this time. Futures markets are signaling further possible declines.

All hail President Barack Obama! Clearly his brilliant energy policy has gotten results, and fast.

Don't believe it? I'm just applying the logic of recent Republican rhetoric, according to which Obama caused the pre-April 5 surge in gas prices. Mitt Romney himself observed last month that Obama "gets full credit or blame for what's happened to this economy and what's happened to gasoline prices under his watch."

So now it's time to give him credit, right?

As he undoubtedly knows, Romney was speaking economic nonsense. The global price of crude oil — down $12 a barrel since early April — mainly determines what we pay at the pump, and there is little that either Congress or the president can do about it in the short run.

Republicans protest that Obama hasn't granted enough drilling permits, but that didn't make much difference in the latest upward price movements — any more than Obama's recent attack on oil-market "speculation" brought prices back down. Prices had started falling by the time he announced the crackdown on April 17.

Romney was, however, expressing a political truth: Both sides shamelessly use gas prices for partisan advantage. The GOP is skewering Obama during his re-election campaign, just as Democrats — then-candidate Barack Obama very much included — blamed President George W. Bush for a 2008 price spike.

What actually has been moving the price of fuel in recent months? In an April 26 post on his blog, analyst Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service pointed out that the price spike earlier this year reflected ordinary seasonal fluctuations, plus some reduced refinery capacity. Meanwhile, gasoline demand in April was down by more than 4 percentage points from a year earlier, according to consumer spending data assembled by MasterCard. Yet other retail spending held up. Apparently people coped with higher gas prices by staying home and shopping online rather than driving to the store.

We remain vulnerable to financial crisis, natural disaster or war in the Middle East. Barring those events, however, the United States is not headed for some sort of gas price catastrophe, no matter who wins the election. This is not what the candidates are telling you, but it is the truth.

Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post's editorial board.

© 2012 Washington Post

Fill the tank but don't buy into partisan hooey 05/24/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 6:53pm]

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