Pump Up The Volume

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In fact, price gouging may be too simple an answer. U.S. gas prices, experts say, have risen because of a complicated blend of global politics, increased consumer demand and a greener U.S. energy policy. Back in 1998, in response to a worldwide glut in crude oil, OPEC restricted production at the same time the strong U.S. economy was seducing ever more Americans into gas-guzzling trucks and suvs. For beleaguered oil companies, strong volume at the pump has been the only crutch supporting comparatively low gas prices caused by the glut.

Prices in the already sensitive gasoline market began to jump last year with new epa clean-air regulations. A major culprit has been reformulated gasoline designed to reduce pollution in the smoggy Chicago-Milwaukee corridor. Although better for the environment, supplies of this specialized "microbrew" have been erratic, causing some pricing spikes. The gas that the rest of the country uses can't be remixed to resupply the micromarket of the Midwest. That short supply is aggravated by a damaged oil pipeline crucial to supplying the region's refineries. The result: higher prices.

Surely Gore understands all this, but the urge to paint Bush as a poster boy for Big Oil has been irresistible. The picture isn't hard to paint. Bush campaign chairman Don Evans is also chairman of oil company Tom Brown Inc. and has seen his stock rise 73% since January. The oil and gas companies have contributed $1.5 million to Bush, versus $95,000 to Gore. All his campaigns dating back to 1978 have been bankrolled by oil money. And in his unsuccessful 1978 congressional race, Bush declared, "There's no such thing as being too closely aligned to the oil business in West Texas."

However, it may not be difficult for Bush to make Gore the first name people curse when they fill up their tanks this summer. After all, the Vice President is on his "Prosperity and Progress" tour, taking credit for America's unprecedented expansion--and implicitly all that goes with it. "This is a huge liability for Gore," says Bill Paxon, former New York Congressman who is now a Bush adviser. "The current situation is an example of what kind of energy and economic policy he'd pursue. It's one thing to talk about it in the abstract and to write it in a book, but now it's affecting people's pocketbooks."

As the candidates point their fingers, the one thing those at the pump don't have to worry about is taking any of the blame. Gore and Bush aren't going to make anyone feel guilty about lining up at the suv dealership or tossing out their commitment to car pools. Both pols know that's the kind of talk that could really ruin a summer vacation.

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