Saturday Mailbox

SATURDAY MAILBOX

September 10, 2005

Tough questions about the spike in price of gas

I take issue with Jay Hancock's Sept. 7 column, beginning with its title, "Curran wants it both ways on gasoline prices."

The one way I "want it" is for businesses to act responsibly in times of crisis.

As attorney general of Maryland, I have a responsibility to protect consumers from unfair trade practices and unreasonable restraints of trade.

Last year, after Hurricane Isabelle, I supported a price-gouging bill that would have given us the tools we need to respond to precipitous spikes in the prices of essential products, including gasoline, during times of emergency.

I intend to support such a bill again.

I also have a responsibility to respond to citizens' complaints regarding the extraordinary price hikes that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Echoing the questions of many of our consumers, I asked why gasoline at the pump has skyrocketed in price.

While I have been concerned that some retailers have been charging consumers shockingly high prices, it has been clear to me that the problem of high gasoline prices probably lies well beyond the retail level.

To examine the possible causes of the sudden price spike, it is necessary to investigate where in the chain of gasoline distribution price or cost increases occurred: in the production of crude oil; the refining of gasoline from crude oil; the distribution of gasoline from refineries in the Gulf through the Colonial Pipeline to storage facilities in Maryland; the trucking of gasoline and sale to retail facilities; or, finally, in the sale of gasoline to consumers.

It is naive to accept without question the assertion that supply-and-demand economics accounts for a spike of this unprecedented magnitude.

We need to ask:

Why did the increase occur virtually overnight and to gasoline already in the distribution chain?

Who added the additional charges: the refiners, the distributors or the retailers?

Have recent mergers in the oil industry caused the oil companies to have greater control over prices than they would in a more diversified market?

Were the price increases the result of independent decision-making or of unlawful collusion?

Have recent decisions by oil companies to maintain lower inventories of refined gasoline than they have in the past contributed to price volatility?

I have talked to attorneys general throughout the country and all are questioning the immediate price increases they have seen, even in states not served by the Gulf Coast refineries. Together, we intend to keep asking searching questions of the industry.

Without questions there will be no answers.

J. Joseph Curran

Annapolis

Bulldozers winning war on open space

Thomas Sowell contends that there is a dire shortage of affordable housing in this country. This is absolutely correct ("For those who need housing, time is money," Opinion

Commentary, Sept. 1).

He further contends that this is somehow the fault of "liberal" environmentalists and historic preservationists. This is absurd.

The bulldozers are winning. Every year we lose irreplaceable farmland, historic buildings and established neighborhoods.

And guess what? The developers are not using the space thus gained to create much-needed housing for poor and working-class families, and for the teachers, firefighters and police officers upon whom our communities depend.

They are building upscale housing for the very wealthy and income-producing commercial buildings for corporations.

There always seems to be land available for more malls and McMansions, but building (or even preserving) neighborhoods for the non-affluent simply isn't profitable, either for builders or for tax revenue-hungry local governments.

If all the "roadblocks to building" that Mr. Sowell deplores were removed, how does he imagine that average citizens would benefit?

Not only would our homes be the first to go when the bulldozers arrive, but we would all shortly be living in a world shorn of beauty, character and history.

Lynn W. Jensen

Baltimore

Threat of rape isn't limited to the Navy

I find it heartening that the Defense Department is developing a proactive approach in dealing with sexual harassment and abuse at the service academies as well as in the military in general.

However, Michael Olesker's observation about "the thousands of co-ed colleges around the country where young men and women manage to exist without such alarming sexual assault numbers - including those countless colleges with co-ed dorms" is inaccurate ("Navy legacy persists: a culture that places female mids at risk," Aug. 29).

A study by Bonnie Fisher, a University of Cincinnati political science professor who surveyed more than 3,700 students at 12 colleges in 1993, identified 31 rapes and sexual assaults per 1,000 students in that year. This figure is roughly consistent with the 158 incidents per 1,000 students over a five-year span that the academies reported.

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