Oily characters

The holidays are a time for celebrating tradition, and a story from The Associated Press reminds us of one of our country's greatest traditions: corporations screwing the public and lying about it.

Confirming what you've suspected as you stand at the self-service gas pump, swearing under your breath, "an Associated Press analysis suggests that big oil companies have been crimping supplies in subtler ways across the country for years. And tighter supplies tend to drive up prices."

The analysis, based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, indicates that the industry slacked off supplying oil and gasoline during the prolonged price boom between early 1999 and last summer, when prices began to fall.

The industry counters that it's been working hard to meet untiring demand. It faults output quotas set by Mideast oil powers, global competition for oil from booming economies like China's, and domestic challenges like depleting wells, clean-air rules, and hurricanes. They do make things harder.

Yet the AP analysis found evidence of at least an underwhelming industry performance in supplying the domestic market, when profits should have made investment capital plentiful:

_During the 1999-2006 price boom, the industry drilled an average of 7 percent fewer new wells monthly than in the seven preceding years of low, stable prices.

_The national supply of unrefined oil, including imports, grew an average of only 6 percent during the high-priced years, down from 14 percent during the previous span.

_The gasoline supply expanded by only 10 percent from 1999 to 2006, down from 15 percent in the earlier period.

The findings support a conclusion already reached by many motorists. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe gas prices are high because oil companies manipulate them, a Pew Research Center poll found in October.

The story focuses on the closing of the Shell refinery in Bakersfield, and is replete with corporate denials of any wrongdoing-- the sort of corporate denials that can't help but remind one of the old days when cigarette companies used to deny any link between smoking and cancer. Very seasonal really, since the holidays are also a time for nostalgia.

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