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Americans Don’t Seem to Want Lower Gas Prices

by Michael Levi
March 27, 2012

It’s difficult to open a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing that Americans are apoplectic about skyrocketing gas prices. If ever there was a moment to channel public anger toward policy progress, this would seem to be it. So I was intrigued to see a new poll from Hart Research Associates, commissioned by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which tests a series of messages about gas prices and policy responses to see which ones would work best.

The poll’s sponsors seem to be excited by the results, writing that “the strongest policy solutions are the ones being advocated by progressives”. But here’s what they find:

The four policies that voters most believe can help a lot with addressing gas prices are:

  • American Oil for American Soil. Require oil companies to use the oil that is produced in the United States from public lands and offshore to meet energy needs here at home, and stop oil companies from exporting oil from our public lands and waters to overseas markets. (60 percent [support])
  • End Oil Subsidies. Repeal the four billion dollars per year in federal subsidies that currently are given to the oil companies, and use that money instead to fund investmentsthat will make us less dependent on oil. (55 percent [support])
  • Crack Down On Excessive Speculation. Tighter oversight and regulation of Wall Street speculators to prevent them from artificially driving up the price of gasoline. (54 percent [support])
  • More Fuel Efficient Cars and Trucks. Increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, so they get more miles per gallon and consumers will save on their gasoline costs. (49 percent [support])

Let’s take these one at a time.

The United States exports a minuscule amount of crude oil (no more than sixty thousand barrels a day at any time in the last decade), most of which doesn’t come from public lands, and all of which is traded for logistical reasons that save Americans money at the pump. That makes “American Oil for American Soil” at best a solution to a non-existent problem.

Ending unwise oil subsidies would be great. There is also zero chance that it would reduce gas prices, let alone “help a lot with addressing” them.

There’s a better case to be made when it comes to excessive speculation, which at least might be a real problem – it’s tough to argue that there isn’t some dumb money distorting prices on short time scales. But there’s no evidence that “excessive” speculation is a big part of what’s driving up the price of gas, particularly over the longer run. Economic fundamentals, along with fear of conflict over Iran , are the big culprits today. “Cracking down” on “excessive speculation” would do little to the price of gas.

The only genuinely powerful proposal among the four that the poll flags is the fourth: increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Yet even with a nudge (the poll question points out that the standards would help consumers “save on their gasoline costs”), fewer that half of Americans seem to be on board.

This is all deeply dismaying. People say that they want lower gas prices, and of course, I don’t doubt that that’s true. But they don’t seem all that interested in pursuing policies that might deliver them – instead, they seem more interested in gimmicks and distractions. Perhaps Americans don’t really want lower gas prices after all.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Robert Rapier

    These are the kinds of polls that make Democrats look incredibly naive and uninformed with respect to oil and gas. To even seriously propose “American Oil for American Soil” demonstrates that the Center for American Progress doesn’t have the slightest clue about the oil market. As you say, almost no oil is exported, and the finished products that are exported are produced only because we still import a lot of oil.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    I suppose not too many of the pollees took Econ 101 and of those who did the majority have forgotten what little they learned.

  • Posted by Tim

    I think the voters will ‘channel’ their anger through the voting booths in November.

    Gas in my area has more than doubled in the last 3.5 years. This alone hurts my family and I; however, when you factor in the knowledge that since gas has risen, virtually everything else has too, the problems are then compounded.

    People need help now,,,they do not want, nor need, the President and Congress playing politics with the country’s energy solutions.

  • Posted by Lee Black

    Consideration should be given to investing in rail traffic – an efficient mode of moving goods.

  • Posted by Paul Pickett

    The fourth option isn’t automatically good, either. Automakers already know that high fuel efficiency sells. If you try and demand better then you are doing one of two things: either you’re demanding the impossible. Or, the auto makers actually DO have technology that would increase efficiency in their back pocket and you will force them to implement it. However, if such technology exists it’s probably not being used because it’s too expensive to be worth using. With choice “A” you’re just passing the buck. With choice “B” you’re simply trading fuel savings at the pump for massive up-front costs that may or may not cancel out.

    I think the lesson to be learned from American responses to the 4 questions above is that as a people we know far too little about this issue. We’re like whining children. We barely know what we want and we’re sure that it’s someone else’s fault that we don’t have it.

  • Posted by OPS

    Most voters feel helpless and voting is the only power they think they have.

  • Posted by James Coan

    Michael,
    I was just taking a look at some of your old posts, and I’m struck by how few people in this survey claimed to support fuel economy standards, 49%. I’m familiar with surveys that report stronger support such as Pew (79% supporting “requiring better fuel efficiency for vehicles” – http://bit.ly/zdVZD8) and Gallup (62% supporting “setting higher emissions standards for automobiles” – http://bit.ly/Hvyx2t). Both of these surveys were conducted in March 2012.

    It’s still my assumption that fuel economy standards are quite popular, and this particular poll from Hart is an outlier. However, this poll may be suggestive of lackluster support. The Pew and Gallup surveys also show that Republicans are less likely to back the policies, so they may be vulnerable to conservative attacks that further weaken support.

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