I raise the question only because it’s a nice, sunny mid-summer day — the kind that is perfect for an old-fashioned road trip — and gas isn’t at $5 a gallon.
For some, that would have been a shock to know last February. A lot of experts back then said we would be paying close to that for gas by now.
It wasn’t just a case of Democrats anxious to blame the greedy. Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who enjoyed a brief moment in the presidential sun, was warning of $5 gas.
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President Obama gave a speech back then saying the Republicans were certain to come up with a three-point plan, “Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling. We've heard the same thing for 30 years.”
That was a nice caricature of the GOP. He, however, has been quick to blame speculators for pushing up prices, as if they get together and do so on a whim, and not as intelligent guesses that not only reflect world events but that help the industry prepare for future trends.
Where are those speculators now? Are they just off spending their money at fancy summer resorts? Can we expect them back in the fall to drive prices up again so they can save for Christmas expenses?
For their part, Republicans used the predictions to press for approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, as if its approval could immediately reduce prices.
The truth is much more complicated than politicians would have you believe. But that won’t stop them.
If you want to get dizzy, look at predictions of gas prices through the years. Way back in February of 2011, Shell Oil’s former president said we would be at $5 a gallon by the start of 2012.
Go back farther, a lot farther: Back in 1956, politicians sued 29 big oil companies, charging them with plotting to raise prices. A federal judge quickly dismissed that suit for the ridiculous stunt it was.
Earlier this year, tensions between Israel and Iran were sending prices up, as was an economy that seemed to be improving, leading to higher demand. But then tensions eased somewhat and the economy slowed down, and $5 gas became $3.45, the national average as of July 17.
The price of gas has fallen 6 cents or more on average during the past three weeks, but the experts say that may soon change. Or not.
So, what can we know for sure about the future of gas prices? Very little, except that Americans are now used to and comfortable with $3+ gas, and that we have no idea what the price will be a year from now.
The uncertainty ought to be enough to spur markets to shift toward natural gas, which enjoys huge reserves in the United States and would be cleaner and less susceptible to world events. Unfortunately, that won’t happen unless the price of gasoline really does hit $5 a gallon.
And if that happens before November, look for Romney and Obama to reload their ammunition.