Last week, not for the first time this year, American gas prices attained record lows compared to costs of the last six years. The price of US petroleum has been in steady decline as the country benefits from a plethora of sources. These include production in Alaska and offshore and the addition of petroleum from shale and coal sands. With this newfound source of energy, the dream that has been ever-present since the Carter administration has become a reality. The United States, at least in regard to domestic needs is truly energy independent.
This does not mean that for a moment that the United States can cease to be mindful of worldwide trends regarding petroleum production. As long as petroleum is the main source of fuel for the world economy, the US must take into account the costs of gas outside its borders. Particularly given the struggles among countries in the Middle East, the near bankruptcy of several South American sources of oil, and recent efforts of Russia to flex its muscle, oil must play a key role as a consideration in American foreign policy.
The United States also needs to pay better attention to the cost of fuel in the homeland. While the country as a whole rejoices at the lower cost of American crude and its derivatives, in the Middle West, it seems that each time that the country’s fuel prices plummet, its local prices for fuel rise. At least three times that record lows occurred in the last year, these American nadirs were countered by increases in the Ohio cost of gasoline. Twice or thrice the increases were blamed on troubles with refineries serving the Midwest. When low crude prices were announced last week, BP shut its Indianapolis refinery. American prices dropped to prices under $2.25 a gallon, but the cost of gasoline in Columbus rose to $3.89 a gallon, with forecasts for prices to soon pass the $4.00 mark.
This combination of events hardly seems coincidental. One must wonder if the refinery closing provided an excuse to find increased revenue in at least one market? One must also wonder why the closing of one company’s refinery should cause a ripple in the pricing of fuel. When operating a business one normally budgets for predictable repairs and upgrades. They are part of the cost of maintaining a business. Why would this not hold true for the petroleum industry where it is well understood that the industry as a whole is fully dependent on predictable, safe operation of wells and refineries? Although usually companies reach into pockets of Americans from the Atlantic to the Pacific, why must Midwesterners bear the brunt as most of of the U.S.A. benefits from relief?
Reading Jewish sources related to the issue also brings a sense of mystery.. Last week’s Torah portion described sabbatical, “shemitah” prohibitions observed every seven years in the Holy Land. During years when fields lay fallow, the economy lived on. During shemitah all crops were considered ownerless and equally available to any who would reap. If the Holy Bible could find a means to provide for all fairly, why cannot the scholars, scientists and biblical leaders of today? Furthermore, if only some are designated to benefit from savings, should not pricing be restructured to be fair for all regardless of their addresses? Deliberate overpricing of goods is a sin described by the Bible and later Sages. It is the sin of o-na-ah, overpricing, and it is onerous when victims are forced to overpay.
The Jewish community must join others of goodwill to call on Washington to create a means to price oil fairly for the entire population.