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Mergers lead to costly gasoline
Study looks at role of the White House
by JIM EFSTATHIOU JR. for Bloomberg
Detroit Free Press
May 18, 2004

President George W. Bush allowed an increase in oil-refinery mergers to go unchecked since he took office and may have contributed to the highest gasoline prices in 20 years as the November election approaches, Bloomberg research has found.

The Bush administration approved 33 takeovers totaling $19.5 billion, on top of 21 deals worth $7.3 billion that occurred under President Bill Clinton, Bloomberg data show. Reduced supplies already were pushing up gas prices during Clinton's term, according to a Federal Trade Commission study conducted after pump prices rose to more than $2 a gallon in Milwaukee and Chicago in 2000.

"We're in a much worse position than we were when the federal government broke up the Rockefeller oil companies of the early 1900s," Jon Meade Huntsman, a Republican and founder of the chemicals maker Huntsman Co. said in an interview. "The average guy on the street is getting killed because this administration does not care."

Americans are paying 30 percent more for regular gasoline than a year ago, an average of $2.017 a gallon. AAA Michigan reported Monday that regular unleaded gas is averaging $2.048 a gallon statewide and $2.027 in the Detroit area. Oil futures have averaged $28.62 a barrel since Bush took office, 42 percent higher than the average during Clinton's two terms. Oil reached a record $41.38 Friday.

Bush, 57, who owned a Texas oil company, Arbusto Energy, before getting into politics, and Vice President Dick Cheney, 63, former chairman of Halliburton Co., the world's biggest oilfield services company, chose to focus on broadening access to federal land for oil exploration and developing renewable energy sources such as corn-based ethanol to minimize price volatility.

Again on Monday, Treasury Secretary John Snow rejected calls to tap the reserve. "Our policy is it's to be used for genuine emergencies, not simply to respond to high energy prices," Snow told reporters in New York. Snow called the high oil prices "unwelcome" and urged the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost supplies.

Under Bush, the FTC hasn't tried to block any proposed refinery takeovers. During Clinton's eight years in office, the government sued once to block an oil-industry merger. In February 2000, the FTC sought to stop BP Plc's $33.1-billion purchase of Atlantic Richfield Co. after it concluded the combination could lead to higher prices of oil pumped from Alaska. BP completed the purchase in April 2000 after it agreed to sell oil fields in Alaska and terminals and pipelines in Oklahoma.

In the first quarter, the rise in gasoline prices helped refiners generate the highest margins from refining crude oil into gasoline and other fuels since at least 1990. ConocoPhillips, the largest U.S. oil refiner, last month posted its biggest quarterly profit since the 2002 acquisition that formed the company. ChevronTexaco Corp., the second-biggest U.S. oil producer, said earnings rose 33 percent to the highest level since a 2001 merger formed the company. Refining profit doubled.

"If I were making a list of factors, you might put consolidation on the list as a reason prices have gone up," Clinton's FTC chairman, Robert Pitofsky, said in an interview Monday.

From 1993 to 2003, the market share of the five-biggest U.S. refiners grew from 35 percent to 52 percent, according to the watchdog group Public Citizen. The Consumer Federation of America says 77 percent of the market on the East Coast and 67 percent on the West Coast were controlled by the top four refiners as of 2000.

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