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Are politicians exploiting high gasoline prices for political gain?

Gas prices are posted at a gas station

Gas prices are posted at a gas station on May 21. Credit: Barry Sloan

Don’t be too cynical when politicians demand action to lower soaring gasoline prices. In many cases, the angry pols are just reflecting their constituents’ justifiable rage.

In recent decades and very recently, gas prices have ballooned quickly for no apparent reason and many oil companies respond by offering amazingly byzantine, confusing reasons for the price spike.

People are understandably confused by this and get loudly and publicly irate. Politicians, of course, habitually bash high gas prices only for political gain, but often there’s also a deeper reason behind their actions: constituent rage.

Motorists get damn mad at paying $100 for a tank of gas that cost $80 a week earlier. Those consumers are rightly outraged about gas prices, but have nobody handy to blame: They’re frustrated and haven’t got a single thing or person to hold responsible.

Every time there’s a sudden increase at the pump, we scream like wounded panthers at anyone who’ll listen.

It’s like a personal insult from some bad guy we can’t see or find. We can hear his evil cackle, but there’s nothing we can do to reverse the situation.

It does no good to scream at the kids at the gas station counters; they have nothing to do with prices that soared into the stratosphere overnight.

So, we rightly demand answers, and naturally look for them from members of Congress, who must dearly want to barricade their offices against thundering hordes of recently impoverished gas buyers.

Meanwhile, the panicked pols do what we pay them to do: get some results while reassuring the hopping-mad public through official inquiries or legislative hearings.

As retail gas prices rose this spring, politicians again reacted to highly irate constituents by making gas prices a hot political topic, with the Democrats trying to fault President Donald Trump for causing pain at the pump, while defensive Republicans tried to shift blame back on their opponents.

These debates have made for great political theater, although they usually fall far short on substance.

But this year, office holders, after hearing from many constituents, have changed some things.

For example, within six weeks, Saudi Arabia went from advocating higher prices to trying to stop a price rally at $80 a barrel for oil.

What changed? The supply threats posed by the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran oil exports earlier this month and the pending collapse of Venezuela’s energy industry are only part of the answer.

However, that’s secondary to the moves of Trump, who either saw the light or felt the heat on prices. On April 20, Trump used Twitter to blast OPEC’s push for higher prices.

“Looks like OPEC is at it again,” he tweeted. “Oil prices are artificially Very High!”

Trump’s intervention mirrored a common worry in oil consuming countries: Oil’s rise from less than $30 per barrel in early 2016 to more than $80 this month could become a major threat to global economic growth.

Saudi Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih caved quickly to Trump, saying his country shared the “anxiety” of his customers. He then announced a shift in policy that all but gave a green light for a market sell off. He said OPEC and its allies were “likely” to boost output in the second half of the year, meaning lower prices for U.S. consumers.

“The tweet moved the Saudis,” said Bob McNally, founder of consultant Rapidan Energy Group, a energy consultant group in Washington and a former White House oil official. “The message was delivered loud and clear to Saudi Arabia.”

Whitt Flora, an independent journalist, covered the White House for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and was chief congressional correspondent for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.