WASHINGTON—With Americans now paying $3.06 a gallon on average for regular gasoline—up 45.9 cents from a week ago, according to new government figures—Congress returned to work Tuesday in a frenzy to attack price gouging and pursue new legislation to encourage both oil drilling and energy conservation.
The gasoline price spike brings the national average close to the all-time high of $3.11 a gallon in inflation-adjusted dollars, which was set in March 1981.
Lawmakers are feeling the heat to do something about it, or at least to give the appearance that they are. In fact, there's little that Congress, or the Bush administration for that matter, can do to bring gasoline prices down quickly, make more fuel available or make each gallon go farther.
"Our job is to make sure that one, price gouging, and two, unfair speculation and unconscionable profiteering does not take place, and especially that they do not take place as a result of the hurricane," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., as his panel held a hearing on high fuel prices.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., announced that he would introduce a bill Wednesday taxing so-called "windfall" oil profits.
"Are you going to do nothing?" Dorgan said, accusing oil companies of making $80 billion a year in excess profits.
There is little that lawmakers can do to punish dealers who jack up prices other than jawbone the industry because there's no federal law against oil profiteering, although 23 states have such laws on their books.
Domenici said he would haul oil executives into the witness chair. Other Senate and House panels are also poised to strike, or at least to strike poses.
Even Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a longtime friend to the oil industry, set a hearing Wednesday on energy supply and gasoline prices.
"We have between 1 to 2 million barrels of day of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico that's been shut down because of the hurricane," said Barton. "I think a very good case can be made today that some retailers have taken advantage of that and have begun to gouge the American people."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the House of Representatives would "revisit" energy issues just a month after President Bush signed a massive $14.5 billion energy bill.
DeLay said the country needs "another energy bill" focused on production, especially drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and other domestic exploration. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote soon on opening the refuge to drilling.
"We need to address refining capacity," DeLay added.
Meanwhile, Democrats and some Republicans are also reviving a cry to raise the fuel-economy standards, which the federal government first imposed on motor vehicles after the oil crisis of the 1970s. Consumers and politicians in Washington have resisted raising the standards for years, but Domenici said Tuesday that Katrina's impact had made such action possible.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): U.S. gas prices
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