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Keystone XL Builder Has Explosive Problems

5:25 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

TransCanada ExplosionTransCanada, the company that would build and own the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada’s tar sand fields to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has dialed up its lobbying in Congress after a U.S. State Department report that favored the pipeline. The giant oil pipeline is perfectly clean and safe, say the lobbyists. TransCanada will be using the best, newest technology, monitoring and materials. The citizens of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and points south need not worry their little heads.

Then, BOOM! A TransCanada natural gas pipeline in Manitoba, Canada blew up in a spectacular fireball on January 25, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. It burned for 12 hours and only its rural location prevented a human catastrophe. (A nearly identical gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California killed eight people and burned a neighborhood in 2010). A TransCanada pipeline in Ontario exploded in a nearly identical manner in 2011. Another TransCanada pipe in Ontario blew up in 2009 as well.

A week after the Manitoba blast, TransCanada still didn’t know what caused it, or wouldn’t say.

Oil pipelines may fail without fireballs, but are no less dangerous to neighbors and the environment. No matter what a pipeline carries, maintenance and vigilance matter. But keeping a pipeline from exploding—or gushing a lake of flammable, toxic crude oil into local water supplies—isn’t a profit center. (What would pour out of Keystone XL is actually a slurry of corrosive tar and chemical-laced, highly flammable thinners.) To a corporation, safety spending is a dead loss. Only the lip service is free.

Ronald Reagan famously said of negotiating with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.” The same goes for the promises of TransCanada, yet U.S. pipeline regulators are too strapped for staff and money to verify even existing pipeline safety, according to a New York Times story.

Another TransCanada pipeline explosion in 2009, in Ontario’s northern wilderness, was blamed on “95% corrosion” of the pipe. A Canadian government report said TransCanada’s inspection tools “failed to accurately assess” the level of corrosion.

The real question about the Keystone XL pipeline is why the United States should bear all of these risks, for no reward. A Consumer Watchdog study last year found that the pipeline, by sending Canadian oil overseas from the Gulf Coast, would actually raise gasoline prices in the U.S. The number of permanent jobs created would be paltry. Domestic oil production is rising and U.S. consumption is falling, so there is no economic rationale for more tar sands oil.

The XL pipeline, with all its attendant risks of spills, pollution–even deliberate vandalism or terrorism–is being built through America but not for America.

Canadians who understand the danger are turning down proposals for oil pipelines to their own Pacific coast.

Oh, and the U.S.State Department report that TransCanada’s lobbyists are waving so proudly? It was drafted by a subcontractor with financial ties to TransCanada. Chalk up one more reason why the U.S. should decline to be TransCanada’s beast of burden.

Posted by Judy Dugan, Research Director Emeritus of Consumer Watchdog.

“Gas Pain” At Pump and Smokestack

3:59 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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This California license plate, “Gas Pain,” might be the sly joke of a gastroenterologist, but it’s not on a Mercedes. So let’s stipulate that it means pain at the pump, with a gallon of regular gas stuck for months at around $4.40. This kind of price is as usual fueled by investor speculation and an oil industry that cuts supply to drive up profit. But the license plate could just as well be about a different kind of gas–a big increase in greenhouse gas emissions by the state’s oil refineries.

California refineries “emit 19–33% more greenhouse gases (GHG) per barrel [of crude oil] refined than those in any other major U.S. refining region,” according to a recent report for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The reason is a corresponding increase in the amount of heavier, dirtier crude oil processed, including dark, sticky tar sands oil from Canada. The gasoline produced at the end of the process is no dirtier–but the gases that could otherwise come from your tailpipe are going up the refinery smokestack instead.

A story in Inside Climate Today points to requirements that refiners remove sulfur pollutants from gasoline and diesel fuels. Such scrubbing is harder to do with the cheaper, dirtier tar oil, and refiners may emit more carbon pollutants during a longer refining process, especially as they try to squeeze out more fuel from every barrel of oil.

California isn’t yet capping refiinery pollution, and this week delayed putting financial teeth in planned emission caps. Pardon us for thinking oil industry lobbying could have had something to do with it.

No one is forcing refiners to buy Canadian tar oil–refiners want because it’s cheaper than lighter oils and produces a bigger profit. It’s the same reason oil companies are demanding their high-volume Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas, which could make California refinery pollution look like a clear day in spring. Exxon Mobil officials won’t even admit that the tar oil is dirtier to refine. From a Texas story on the pipeline:

An ExxonMobil spokesperson refused to specify how much heavy crude the company’s refineries are already processing in Texas or might process if the pipeline is completed. Nor would the company respond to questions about how refining tar sands oil affects the amount of air pollution created by the plants.

Extra profit also comes from U.S. refiners exporting gasoline and diesel fuel at record rates. Fuel is now America’s top export, even as refiners import the dirtiest oil to make it.  Domestic pump prices go up and the refinery pollution burden on Americans goes up while other nations reap the clean fuel.

Californians are already buying and driving cleaner cars and cutting consumption. All families prize clean air, but those who live near refineries are suffering more, not less, pollution. There’s “gas pain” for everyone except the oil industry and its servants in government, as in a Congress that won’t even trim the industry’s billions in corporate welfare.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

“Fracking” for natural gas gets some attention, but so far it’s just yakking

5:45 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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ExxonMobil, which is making big bets worldwide on hydraulic fracturing for deeply buried natural gas, is also making big bets on its sincere, earnest advertising about clean, safe natural gas. The ads turn me into a crazy person, yelling at the television during halftimes and seventh-inning stretches.

Their claim that they ensure compliance with all “applicable environmental and safety regulations” is my personal turning point, because in the U.S. those regulation barely exist. It’s easy to comply with nothing, so Exxon can get away with telling us that fracturing bedrock thousands of feet deep, drilling through the aquifers that supply our drinking water, using scarce water supplies spiked with an unidentified slew of toxic chemicals, is as safe as braiding a a daisy chain.

Some other countries, however, are starting to act on their doubts.

France has outlawed this drilling, known as “fracking,” until doubts about what it does to water supplies and how its waste poisons the land are dealt with. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned one of the Exxon ads, stating that its claim on liquefied natural gas as one of the world’s cleanest fuels is misleading.

In the U.S., enviro and consumer groups grumble, and SolarDave has made an on-target spoof of the Exxon ads, but our lawmakers and regulators are still mostly twiddling their thumbs. There isn’t a federal requirement that drillers tell us what chemicals they’re squirting into the ground, or a law to prevent dumping their wastewater into the rivers from which we drink.

After a slew of investigative reporting (special kudos to ProPublica) on the health and environmental fallout from fracking, government is starting to ask questions. This week, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico led off a Senate Energy and Commerce hearing on fracking, ticking off the water issues, land poisoning and air pollution issues, and adding on fracking’s release of highly potent climate-change gases, particularly methane. But a show of sympathy is a long, long way from effective regulation. Read the rest of this entry →

Take Action on Gas Prices

8:45 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Photobucket Here’s a petition from our ally Public Citizen, calling on federal regulators to quit stalling and rein in the financial speculators who are jacking up gasoline prices. It’s well worth the few seconds to click on the link and sign the petition. Fight back against Goldman Sachs and the other big banks whose speculation costs you at the pump!

The speculators are counting on the public not understanding or caring about commodities regulation. Prove them wrong.

Here’s OilWatchdog’s earlier post on the damage the speculators are doing. And here’s the text of the e-mail message sent by Tyson Slocum at Public Citizen, explaining the technical point at issue:

Did you know that for every gallon of gas you buy, 65 to 70 cents goes right into the pockets of Wall Street traders?

Speculation on Wall Street, while currently legal, artificially inflates the price purely to make traders richer. It has nothing to do with how much it costs to find, refine or distribute oil. It’s just the manipulation of markets for the sake of greed.

American consumers end up paying millions and millions more for fuel. And the distorted profits contribute to perpetuating our addiction to oil.

You can do something about it. Read the rest of this entry →

Why Are Gasoline Prices Staying High?

7:14 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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The old adage about gasoline prices, “up like a rocket, down like a feather,” has never been so true. The price of crude oil in recent days has been down near $80 a barrel, translating to about $1.92 a gallon. But the national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to AAA, is stuck at $3.63 a gallon, what it was a month ago.

Economists are cheering the drop in the price of oil, but it won’t do much to help consumers unless the price of fuel comes down as well.

Attached is the AAA national price chart for Wednesday. Note that the gap between the price of oil and the price of gasoline is about $1.80–around twice the recent usual, and the gap has been growing since the beginning of July. Because stations these days turn over their inventory fast, unlike in the old days of mom-and-pop stations, there’s no visible excuse for the retail prices.

I’m often on the side of gasoline retailers when it comes to pricing, because they get squeezed by refiners and price-setting by their suppliers. But wholesale gasoline prices are also dropping sharply, so it looks like the branded retail chains are reaping a bonanza even as drivers suffer as much as ever from a trashed economy.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Natural Gas Drillers: ‘We Don’t Need Your Stinking Air Rules’

4:22 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Whenever regulators try to clean up our air or water, industry issues its standard “job killer” press release. Let your children keep their asthma and we won’t shut down our (oil, gas, coal) (refinery, drilling facility, surface mine), is the general theme. No surprise, then, that a coalition of deep-well natural gas drillers responded sternly to proposed national clean-air regulations on their almost entirely unregulated industry:  ”This sweeping set of potentially unworkable regulations represents an overreach that could, ironically, undercut the production of American natural gas,” said the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Yet the real shock in the story is that we allow energy companies take vast quantities of fresh water, add largely unregulated chemicals and force it under high pressure into deep shale beds to fracture rock and release natural gas. The gas rises back up like soda water and releases the gases it collected underground (methane) and the chemicals added by drillers, sometimes morphed by heat and pressure into something more dangerous (cancer-causing benzene).

It turns out that in 2005, the Bush Administration got Congress to exempt this “fracking” technique from federal clean air and water rules.

Here’s the result, described by a Texan living in the middle of it, as told to Propublica.com:

I live and work in south central Texas. The nations new hotspot for fracking. The enviromental destruction Fracking has caused in the last 5 years is unbelievable. The air quality in this rural area is worse than in most large cities. The wholesale destruction of the ecosystem is unimaginable. The amount of water used in fracking is irresponsible in a water scarce region.

The Environmental Protection Agency is acting to curb the smog-causing methane and other air pollutants because of a federal lawsuit by environmental groups. Its selling point for the regulation is that the drillers could actually make money by capturing and selling the methane. Conspicuously absent is any mention that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide–though of course it’s now so unfashionable to believe in global warming, much less talk about it.

Federal regulators are still prohibited by the 2005 law from controlling the ruination of vast amounts of clean water in drought-ridden states and the contamination of drinking water. So it’s left to the states. Expectably, Pennsylvania and New York are acting. But Texas, the free-market state, will take the asthma, please, and its drillers, from Exxon down, will no doubt do all they can to cripple the federal regulations before they’re final.

See ProPublica’s pioneering series on fracking, and the damage the industry has inflicted from New York to the Southwest, here.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Oil Will Grease a Debt-Limit Recession

2:39 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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If the U.S. ends the coming weekend without national debt limit deal, it won’t just be bond defaults sending the nation back into a deep, ugly recession. A hint came Tuesday as the price of oil rose a little, nearing $100 a barrel once again even as stocks did a mini-tank, with the Dow down 91 points.

So who’s still grinning as most of us curse the absolutists in Congress who see “balance” as treason? Yep, oil companies.

BP jumped back to a $5.6 billion quarterly profit Tuesday after a $17 billion loss a year ago, post-spill. Smaller Occidental Oil was up 71% over last year’s 2nd quarter, to $1.8 billion. And analysts think the party will continue.

From Reuters:

Analysts said it would likely be the oil industry’s biggest second quarter since 2008, when oil prices hit record highs. “We expect almost all the oil and gas companies we cover to report higher earnings than in [2009 and 2010]. The earnings improvements from a year ago reflect higher oil prices of 32% for West Texas Intermediate crude and and 50% for Brent North Sea crude,” said Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst for Oppenheimer and Co.

Getting oil speculation under control has slipped far from the top of the agenda in Washington. But no matter how the debt crisis turns out, federal regulators have to recognize that the economy can’t ever really recover while Main Street pays for the energy binges on Wall Street and in Houston.

The oil price increase came as the value of the dollar dropped, and speculators hunted for a place to put money coming out of stocks. If the U.S. economy crashed after a debt default, oil would crash partway, because a dead U.S. economy means so much less gasoline and oil consumed. But in a lesser scenario, oil could just keep creeping up, until speculative energy and food prices really do crash the consumer economy again.

No matter what happens, oil will rise long before consumers get out from under their job and other losses–just as happened in the recent recession, putting a drag on any hope of quick recovery.

What to watch? The price of gasoline. Economists see $4.00 gasoline in the U.S. as the tipping point where drivers start feeling pinched and cut back on other expenses. Gasoline is now hovering around a national average of $3.70 a gallon, up 15 cents from a month ago. That’s not much of a cushion; it’s already more than job-hunters can afford. Too bad no one in the Capitol has lost his job and can feel the pain firsthand.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

If Exxon Can’t Deal With the Montana Spill…

2:19 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Exxon is still fumbling to deal with a 42,000-gallon oil pipeline spill on the Yellowstone River west of Billings, Montana. Its initial response was pathetic–it was slow to turn off the gushing pipeline, had no plan for dealing with a spill in high water (i.e. every spring) and, most alarmingly, “misspoke” about how deeply the pipe was buried in the riverbed, even denying a shortly before the spill that the pipe could be damaged by water erosion.

From the Associated Press:

Officials in Laurel, near the site of the spill, raised questions last year about erosion along the riverbank threatening the Exxon Mobil line. The company in December surveyed the pipe’s depth and said it was at least 5 to 8 feet beneath the riverbed.

The line was temporarily shut down in May after Laurel officials again raised concerns that it could be at risk as the Yellowstone started to rise. The company restarted the line after a day, following a review of its safety record.

The company said in a June 1 email — just a month before the spill — that the line was buried at least 12 feet beneath the riverbed, according to documents from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines.

There’s lots more: it doesn’t have a plan or a timeframe for fixing the pipeline. It has no plan yet for how it will restore land along the scenic, wild river that provides water for crops, humans and the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. It has no idea where the erroneous “12 feet” figure in an official Exxon document came from. And its statement that the oil would only affect 10 miles of river was off–now by a factor of more than four.

At least the spill won’t hurt Exxon’s tens of billions of dollars in yearly earnings. Whew. That’s a relief. It means the company can put a couple of high-powered PR people in charge of telling us how its response to a relatively piddling spill in Montana doesn’t mean it would completely blow the response to a major spill of several million gallons, like BP’s well in the Gulf. And how nothing like that could ever happen to a major Exxon well or pipeline. And how Exxon would respond vigorously to the next safety warning about one of its facilities.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Gasoline Pump Prices Line Refiners’ Pockets

4:48 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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The financial news today is that oil prices are down below $90 a barrel from over $100, and futures market prices for gasoline are down 5% to below $3.00 a gallon. Will that translate to big savings at the pump? Don’t bet on it, at least not for long.

OilWatchdog has watched for years as refiners curtailed production to keep prices up even as consumers buy less gasoline. Gasoline prices have hit $4.00 a gallon in state after state even as pinched consumers drove less. Unbought crude oil has also piled up in storage tanks in Cushing, Oklahoma, the main hub for oil pipelines to Midwest refineries. Gasoline prices should be falling through the floor. But they’re not, certainly not yet.

How refiners make these big bucks was explained over the weekend in a Kansas City Star weekend story by reporter Steve Everly, who completely understands how energy companies stick it to consumers and isn’t afraid to write about it. It couldn’t be any plainer than this:

The conventional wisdom has been that gasoline shot to about $4 a gallon because the price of oil soared.

But that ignores a key factor: Even though U.S. gasoline use is declining, refiners have kept U.S. stockpiles below average by curbing production and exporting more gasoline.

That has kept prices up — and doubled oil refinery profits. Refineries are on track to reap their best profits in years. …

For refineries, their margin is the difference between what they pay for crude oil and what they get for the wholesale gasoline and other products. Those margins have been gradually rising this year and recently were more than double what they were a year ago, when they were 38 cents for a gallon of gasoline.

Last week the margins climbed more because of concerns that Mississippi River flooding could close some refineries and tighten supplies further.

At one point last week, the margins for wholesale gasoline sold in the Midwest were more than $1.20 a gallon, rivaling levels briefly seen after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers has since disappointed a lot of gasoline speculators by opening upstream floodgates to protect major Gulf Coast refineries, which helped cause Monday’s drop in the speculative price of gasoline. Drivers may see a little more relief at the pump in the next several weeks, but refiners have learned a lot in the last few years about making more money by making less gasoline. It’s no longer a business that tries to grab more customers by competing on price.

With a lot of refineries up for sale–a sort of hangover from the bad refining profits at the 2008 peak of the recession–it’s up to federal and state regulators to make sure that whatever competition is left isn’t cut further. The worst case would be more refineries simply being shut down, as Shell tried to do in California several years ago. That’s a guarantee of even higher gas prices down the road.

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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Is There a ‘Gashole’ in Your Tank?

3:37 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

The national average price of plain old regular gasoline is up a dollar a gallon over the past week to $3.83, according to AAA. California, which alerts the rest of the nation to where pump prices are going, is at $4.20. And nationwide, the diesel fuel that drives our trucks and trains is $4.14 a gallon, even though diesel is cheaper to make than gasoline. No wonder food prices are spiking.

It’s as though we had another Hurricane Katrina furiously driving up the price of fuel, but without the storm. Which makes it interesting that an indie documentary called “Gas Hole,” (trailer), examining the reasons for our high gas prices in the post-Katrina world and oil company influence on the gas-guzzling engines in our cars, is now getting wider release. You can be sure that Exxon didn’t provide the funding for this funny/weird/disturbing doc. (I love the old desert-rat types with faded sedans that get 100 mpg, and their stories of disappearing clean-car patents.)

We find out why there’s no supply and demand in any real sense driving the price of gas today. Oil prices are spiked upward by speculation in futures markets, not by physical shortage on the market. Gasoline is driven upward not just by oil prices, but by refining companies’ restrictions on their output, and overall supplies. Then the price of gasoline pushes up oil prices some more. We’re all at the mercy of greed, not supply and demand.

Some of the serious points covered in “Gas Hole” track OilWatchdog’s studies and reports over the years, which are covered in my colleague Jamie Court’s book, “The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell.” (video). (Full disclosure: Jamie was interviewed for the movie.)

Some of the most eye-opening points from the book:

Remarkably, the idea that oil companies have control over the price at the pump is controversial in Washington, D.C. Oil company executives point to geopolitical instability, future predictions of crude oil scarcity, OPEC, and other forces beyond their control as the culprits.

The public knows the scoop, and its instincts track the research. Oil companies know they can make more money by making less gasoline, so they do.

I have studied the issue of high gasoline prices for more than a decade.

Here’s what I have learned about how the big five oil companies control gasoline prices by making the commodity scarce and keeping the price high. This knowledge is critical to opposing the industry’s anticonsumer behavior and pushing Americans toward real energy change.

• Rather than compete with each other to provide more and cheaper gasoline, oil companies cheat together to withhold needed gasoline supply from the market. Consistently, the companies artificially pull back refinery production of gasoline in order to reduce supply coming in during periods of peak demand so they can increase prices. … This behavior has been documented by government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which found, for example, in an investigation of Midwest gasoline price spikes, that one refiner admitted keeping supply out of a region in need because it would boost prices.

• Oil companies failed to build ample refining capacity to meet demand. Over the last twenty years,America’s demand for gasoline increased 30 percent and refinery capacity at existing refineries increased only 10 percent. No new American refinery has come on line during the last thirty years. Internal memos and documents from the big oil companies show they deliberately shut down refining capacity in order to have a greater command over the market.

• The big oil companies have their own crude oil production operations and control substantial foreign production of crude oil. They profit wildly when the price of crude oil skyrockets, so they have an interest in driving up the price, despite the fact that they blame OPEC for those crude oil increases.The crude oil producers can even drive up the price of crude by restricting gasoline production and trading crude oil among their own subsidiaries to drive up the price paid for crude by others. Traders with connections to the oil companies can also make big bets on the opaque crude oil futures market to drive up the price and also drive up the value of their Exxon shares.

• The crude oil that big integrated oil companies use in their own refineries is mostly bought on long-term contracts or through their own production, so the oil companies don’t pay the world price for crude oil when it’s high. Their raw material costs are much lower than they would like us to believe. So when the companies raise the price of gasoline in tandem with the run-up in crude oil prices, they are making big profits because Exxon’s crude oil unit is charging its own refining unit a higher price for crude than is necessary.The accounting shenanigans result in an overall windfall profit but show the companies’ gasoline refineries making little profit.

“Gas Hole” also pays close attention to oil companies’ long history of influencing markets and government to boost their profits and protect their business model. It pays impressive tribute to the inventor of modern investigative reporting (and one of my personal heroes), Ida Tarbell, whose 1904 history of Standard Oil laid bare a price-fixing national monopoly with tentacles everywhere in government.

Gee, does that sound familiar today? “Gas Hole” has too much sense of the absurd–even a clip from “Reefer Madness”–to be pedantic. But knowledge is power. In the end, it’s a lot more useful than boycotting the Exxon station.

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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.