Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is going after Big Oil, and we applaud the move.
The outrageous jump in the price of gasoline has been a major contributor to the depth and breadth of the Great Recession.
When people aren't getting raises and have to spend twice as much on gasoline, they have no extra cash.
If this were just an issue of basic supply and demand it would not be a major concern for Congress. But when the price of gas spikes for no obvious reason, that's worth investigating.
Cantwell last week called for the Department of Justice to conduct a West Coast refinery-by-refinery probe into the reasons behind this year's gas price spikes.
Cantwell said a report released at a California state Senate hearing indicates artificial shortages were occurring in May and October while West Coast gas prices surged over $4 per gallon.
The report by McCullough Research said two West Coast oil refineries might have been producing oil in May despite public reports they were shut down for maintenance. McCullough's report said oil inventories were at historical high levels in October at the same time as gas prices spiked.
"Washingtonians were hit hard this year by gas price spikes supposedly caused by supply disruptions," Cantwell said. "This report indicates that the gas price spike may have been caused by more than just supply and demand. We need a true cop-on-the-beat policing the vital oil market."
This type of investigation needs to be done at the national level. Over the past few decades the late state Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla, nudged the state Attorney General's Office to investigate the imbalance in regional gasoline prices. The investigations found that, yes, prices were higher in Walla Walla, but it could not be proven there was anything illegal going on. It was frustrating.
Beyond exploring the recent price spikes, Congress should consider establishing oversight. Gasoline is a commodity, like electricity and natural gas, essential to our lives. The price of electricity and natural gas are regulated, why not gasoline?
Oil companies should have to seek permission from a government commission to raise prices. The commission could take into consideration market conditions, but could also make sure the consumer isn't being gouged.
Perhaps an investigation into inappropriate pricing on the West Coast could be the catalyst for commission oversight.
Cantwell is on target in seeking a Justice Department investigation.