Bias At The Gas Pump

After years of blue-sky media celebration over the wonderful Clinton-Gore economy, a dark cloud appeared this summer. The dramatic increases in gasoline prices, particularly in Milwaukee and Chicago, threatened to puncture the balloon.

What caused the explosion in gas prices? There for anyone to see who cared to look were Big Government's - i.e., the Clinton administration's - fingerprints all over this mess. Yet somehow, somehow the liberal press managed to miss it.

When the gasoline price crisis broke in early June, the networks all suggested one cause could be the Environmental Protection Agency and its new clean air regulations demanding a new, reformulated gasoline in Milwaukee and Chicago. These regulations took effect immediately before the surge in prices.

It wasn't as if this came as a surprise, either. The role of the EPA under Al Gore ally Carol Browner had been known in the Midwest for weeks. Local talk radio hosts had been lamenting the arrival of "Gore gas." And once it arrived, Wisconsin officials requested that the EPA grant a waiver from the requirement, which the EPA rejected twice as prices continued to soar. By mid-June, as gas prices threatened to become a campaign issue, the Clinton-Gore administration went into damage control mode, insisting that EPA's rules had minute costs, and that this price increase was in fact a dastardly plot by Big Oil to exploit the summer driving season. Did the press fall for it?

Hook, line and sinker. Rich Noyes of the Free Market Project did the simple math. From then through the end of the month, the networks aired a grand total of two stories on EPA regulations while devoting 16 reports promoting the administration's position that private-sector "price gouging" and "profiteering" were at fault.

Suddenly, the EPA was the solution, not the problem. "The EPA wants to know why the price of gasoline in so many parts of the country is as high as it is," Peter Jennings announced on June 12. "The EPA is on the case because cleaner-burning gas may be an issue, but so might price-gouging."

Oil industry experts protested the conspiracy-mongering, but all they got were soundbites as reporters perversely cheered government regulators to the rescue. "The White House has now put the oil industry on notice," declared CBS's Bob Orr, "If any evidence of price gouging surfaces, regulators will come down hard."

If network reporters were independent investigators instead of spoon-fed regurgitators, they might have checked with the American Automobile Association, which surveys more than 60,000 service stations to track gas prices across the nation. AAA's "Fuel Gauge Report" noted: "Major cities mandated to use the new Phase II environmental gasoline have had the biggest run-ups in price, and other cities served by the same refiners and distributors that are supplying the new gasoline have also seen big price increases." In mid-June, AAA called on the EPA to suspend its reformulated-gas mandates for 90 days to provide relief for motorists and allow time for refiners to stock up on the new gas.

But the networks ignored all that.

On June 21, a Congressional Research Service study determined that the reformulated-gas requirements had increased pump prices by about 25 cents in Milwaukee and Chicago. The report attributed another 25 cents per gallon to pipeline problems that plagued the Midwest. The study's author, economist Lawrence Kumins, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel how the EPA-mandated gas was at fault. "It's difficult stuff to make. There's a limited call for it. It's difficult to transport, and there's a shortage of transportation capacity. Then you have to factor in a fundamentally tight crude oil supply underlying the whole situation."

The networks ignored that, too.

While some liberals greeted the uproar by disparaging the piggish greed of Americans who drive sport-utility vehicles (so much for respecting another "lifestyle choice"), none cheered the higher pump prices. They should have been popping champagne corks. For years, politicians like Al Gore have called for higher gas prices in order to save the planet from phantom menaces like global warming. Time magazine regularly saw planetary demise around the corner and proposed increases in the gas tax of 50 cents or a dollar a gallon, so that we could have the enlightened energy policies of our European allies. Now that we're headed in this direction, why aren't they celebrating?

Decades after oil shocks first led the media elite to promote fanciful conspiracy theories that that Big Oil was hiding tankers off America's coastlines until it could wring the maximum profits from its victims, reporters and editors still stand ready to promote those same old statist prejudices about any "unjust" price being a reason for more government. For them, it is heresy to suggest, as Ronald Reagan did, that government is the problem, not the solution.