Senate Committee Advances Fuel Markets Bill

gas pump
Fuel prices at a gas station in New York May 17. (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg News)

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Legislation designed to enhance market transparency and direct the Federal Trade Commission to prevent fraud or manipulation linked to inflating gasoline prices was approved by a Senate panel.

The Commerce Committee on May 25 voted along party lines to advance the Transportation Fuel Market Transparency Act. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s chairwoman and sponsor of the bill, expressed a sense of urgency ahead of the measure’s consideration.

“The rising price of fuel is wreaking havoc,” Cantwell said. “Congress has given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Commodities Future Trading Commission ability to police bad actors [so] then they can be caught and punished. But we also need a policeman on the beat as it relates to the transportation fuel market.”

Under the bill, the maximum penalty for manipulating wholesale oil markets would be $2 million daily per violation. The bill also would require the surveys of energy companies for gathering timely and relevant information on crude oil and transportation fuel markets.

Co-sponsors include Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon. Feinstein had noted recently: “As we continue to work toward energy independence by investing in clean energy sources, we also need to ensure there is greater transparency in the oil and gas markets to prevent price gouging.”

“This much is painfully clear: Oil companies and middlemen are raking in profits while Americans from communities large and small struggle to afford record-high prices at the pump,” Wyden observed. “This legislation provides much-needed transparency and oversight to reveal harmful price gouging that is devastating working families.”

Senate Democratic leaders who endorsed the Cantwell measure have yet to schedule a vote for it in the chamber. The bill is unlikely to be called up by Memorial Day, a holiday which marks the traditional start of the busy summer driving season.

In the House of Representatives, a similar version of Cantwell’s bill was recently approved along party lines. The House this month voted 217 to 207 to pass the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act. Its sponsors included Democratic Reps. Kim Schrier of Washington and Katie Porter of California. The lawmakers criticized the industry’s profits as motorists are reportedly challenged by rising fuel costs.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, partly blame Democrats in control of Congress, as well as President Joe Biden, for the nation’s economic status. “For decades, when gas prices have spiked, the Federal Trade Commission has been asked to identify price gouging or manipulation in the oil and gas market. And each time, the FTC has found nothing,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member on the Commerce Committee, said. He joined Republican colleagues in opposing Cantwell’s bill. “Today, with gas prices hitting record highs, instead of reckoning with how the president’s own anti-domestic energy policies are contributing to this crisis, the president is looking for a scapegoat.”

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“Gas prices are scraping the stratosphere,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said recently. “In Kentucky, the average price for a gallon of regular reached an all-time high two weeks ago. Today, it’s another 20 cents higher than that.”

As the prices at the pump continue to garner attention from Democrats and Republicans, neither party is guaranteed to arrive at a fuel-centric bill capable of reaching the president’s desk in the near-term. The Energy Information Administration on May 23 reported that the national average price of diesel stood at $5.571 a gallon.

According to auto club AAA, nearly 40 million families and individuals will travel 50 miles or more from their homes during the Memorial Day weekend.