Investigations into oil and gasoline price-gouging and a

temporary halt in deposits to the nation's strategic petroleum reserves: These

are the key provisions in President George W. Bush's response to rising

pressure to do something about gasoline prices that are exceeding $3 a gallon.

Are they enough, and will they be effective?

Probably not at the pump. There may be some marginal psychological impact

from Bush's use of the bully pulpit, but the real effect the president is

hoping for is a reversal of his plummeting approval ratings. In any case, the

motivation for his initiatives is panic among Congressional Republicans running

for re-election, who fear Democrats will latch on to the administration's

tepid response to the rise in oil prices as a potent political weapon.

A far more significant impact on prices would come from an immediate repeal

or suspension of the stiff tariffs Congress imposed, with Bush's approval, on

imported ethanol, the additive required by federal clean-air rules to oxygenate

gasoline for summer driving. There is a severe and inexcusable shortage of

ethanol refined from corn in the United States at the moment, just as the

driving season looms. Imported ethanol, which is not made from corn, is far

cheaper. But the tariffs imposed on it - a generous giveaway to politically

significant states in the Midwest's corn-growing belt - are making the imported

additive prohibitive. Bush should move to ditch those tariffs immediately.

The other stratagems make for good public relations, but they are unlikely

to affect prices. A temporary halt to strategic-reserve additions is fine. But

the reserves are at full capacity anyway, so the effects are questionable. As

for price-gouging, until recently Bush himself blamed price hikes on a rapid

rise in global demand. He was right. Even if the price of gasoline was

manipulated at the distribution or retail level, the biggest hit has come from

the tripling of crude oil prices at the wells in the past three years, from

rising Chinese and Indian demand, and from civil conflict in oil-producing

nations.

Bush's four-part plan to address gas prices also includes promoting greater

fuel efficiency (though new federal rules have not cracked down on SUVs and

light trucks), boosting gasoline supply at home (hampered by a lack of refining

capacity due to damage from the Gulf Coast hurricanes), and aggressive

long-term investment in alternative fuels (which won't have any effect until

much later). Those are all good intentions. The road to hell is paved with them.

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