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If the President Wants Cleaner, Safer Gas and Oil, Give Consumers Knowledge and Power

2:34 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Fracking PondIt was a relief to hear more than a passing reference to climate change in President Obama’s State of the Union Speech, including promises of more support for wind and solar power. But the oil industry heard nothing to even cause even a smidgen of concern.

Asking Congress to “get together to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change” should have been marked in the transcript as a laugh line. And the presidential promise to “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits” was an emergency alert for communities under siege from natural gas fracking and states–particularly California–whose dwindling supply of clean water is being sucked away by both oil companies and climate change.

While the president pledged support for “research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and our water,” technology is only as good as the corporations willing to pay for it as well as put safety above profit. What citizens want is information and a say in the process. Right now they have precious little of either.

So the citizen’s challenge to President Obama and Congress has to be this:

  • We want knowledge and the oil industry demands secrecy about its drilling, its safety procedures, the toxic chemicals it injects into wells and the effects of drilling on land, water and air.
  • We want responsibility and the oil industry wants deniability about chemical and methane seepage (to protect it from liability for the damage it causes, from poisoning our water to killing farm stock after leaks from wastewater ponds like the one pictured above).
  • We want advance information about new drilling and the industry wants no discussion with communities before the drill bits hit the soil; dangerous fracking gets far less advance scrutiny than solar and wind projects.
  • We want the environmental and quality of life effects of drilling measured and balanced before deep new fracking and injection wells go up next door; the industry calls such requests “job killers.

Judy DuganPresident Obama rightly praised the growth of cleaner cars and called for more conservation and greener buildings. He left no wiggle room in his speech for climate-change deniers, not with American coastal communities being submerged by rising seas and ever-more-frequent giant storms like Sandy. Yet that firmness doesn’t track with his praise for clean-burning natural gas. Any clean-air benefit in combustion has to be balanced against the high volumes of methane–which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide–in the gas fracking process.

He praised growing North American energy independence–yet such “independence,” in a global market like oil, will do exactly nothing to reduce U.S. gasoline prices. And the worse cost is the acceptance of filthy tar sands oil from Canada, which pollutes at every stage from extraction to refining.

Everything in politics is a tradeoff, and President Obama has at least put energy conservation and climate change back on the national radar. What we need to see now is a commitment to saving our air, land and water for generations to come, rather than accepting the false “job killer” mantra of industry and its empty promises to put safety over profit.

Posted by Judy Dugan, former 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.

“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.

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.

What’s Causing the Gas Hole in Your Wallet? You’ve Got to See This Movie

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

If you want to know why we’re really paying over $4 per gallon for gasoline, and there appears to be no end in sight, the film Gas Hole lays it all out for anyone who wants to know the history of the pain at the pump.

The filmmakers pull back the curtain on the dirtiest secrets of the oil industry: from oil companies buying up patents for devices that would give you 100 miles per gallon, to intimidation of inventors of green technology, to oil company manipulation of the gasoline supply that drives up prices.

Being released on DVD in time for Earth Day, Gas Hole, narrated by Peter Gallagher and featuring Joshua Jackson, is an eye-opening documentary about the history of oil prices and sheds light on a secret that the big oil companies don’t want you to know — that there are viable and affordable alternatives to petroleum fuel!

View the Gas Hole Trailer from Cinema Libre Studio on Vimeo.

Gas Hole provides a detailed examination of our continued dependence on foreign oil and examines various potential solution.

The film also tells the story of the battle my group, Consumer Watchdog, fought with Shell Oil to keep the company from demolishing a key gasoline refinery during a period of high demand and low supply in order to drive up the price at the pump. A combination of public pressure and intervention by US Senator Barbara Boxer and then California Attorney General Bill Lockyer forced Shell to keep the refinery open and sell it to a competitor.

As Gas Hole documents, it took every bit of raising hell know-how we had to keep Shell honest. Most communities just cannot fight back.

The film artfully lays out what I learned about fighting oil companies for more than a decade about how they jack up the price up at the pump.

• Rather than compete with each other to provide 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.

• Oil companies failed to build ample refining capacity to meet demand. Over the last 20 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 30 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, and “upstream” crude-oil production divisions making the lion’s share.

The oil companies cannot be shamed, but Gas Hole shows why we need to keep them on a short regulatory string.

What are the solutions? Gas Hole offers them up starting with claims of buried technology that dramatically improves gas mileage, to navigating bureaucratic governmental roadblocks, to evaluating different alternative fuels that are technologically available now, to questioning the American Consumers’ reluctance to embrace alternatives.

If you are paying $4 dollars or more per gallon for gasoline, spending a little more on the DVD of Gas Hole is a wise choice.

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Jamie Court is the president of Consumer Watchdog and author of The Progressive’s Guide To Raising Hell (Chelsea Green)

Follow Jamie Court on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RaisingHellNow

Taking on Koch Industries in Times Square

1:12 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

If you walk through the heart of Times Square today and look up at the 520 sq. ft. CBS superscreen on 42nd St., you’re going to be introduced to the largest oil company you’ve never heard of: Koch Industries.

Consumer Watchdog is running a 30 second commercial parodying a Coca Cola advertisement on a Times Square superscreen that challenges Koch (pronounced ‘Coke’) Industries, "the largest oil company you’ve never heard of," for its record of environmental degradation, political influence peddling, Tea Party funding and climate change denial.

Koch is the largest private company in the United States, a major polluter, and the principle funder of climate change deniers and the tea party. Recently, the Koch brothers made a $1 million contribution to California’s Prop. 23, which would roll back the most comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions caps in the nation.

We’ve put together a page documenting Koch’s egregious track record at the newly redesigned Oil Watchdog. Koch was named one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. The Koch family foundations have contributed over $48 million in grants to climate opposition groups since 1997 and funneled over $17 million to organizations that "educate," train, and organize the Tea Party.

Koch Industries is not yet a household name, but in the world of right wing, anti-environment politics, Koch has become an uber-brand. Koch stands for climate change denial, global warming, cash-register politics and propping up the Tea Party.

Every American should know about this company and what its owners stand for. They are dangerous and a threat to our democracy. Given their checkered past, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to stay under the radar for so long. With the help of our superscreen, we’re going to try to put an end to that.

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Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of 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.