Republican senators call for hearings on sharp spike in California gasoline prices

The top GOP members of two Senate committees are pushing for a joint hearing on the cause of a sharp spike in California gasoline prices.

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Republican Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) want the Environment and Public Works and the Energy and Natural Resources committees to investigate why gasoline prices jumped to $4.70 per gallon, up from $4.20, in the first week of October.

“It seems that refinery outages, pipeline issues, and fuel blend requirements unique to California had a significant impact,” they wrote Wednesday to Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), the leaders of Environment and Public Works and Energy and Natural Resources committees, respectively.

California gas prices have since dropped, to $4.36 per gallon for regular unleaded fuel on Wednesday, according to AAA. The national average was $3.63 per gallon.

Bill Wicker, Democratic spokesman for the Energy committee, said that with the Senate out of session, he is unsure whether Bingaman has received the letter.

"The first we heard about any GOP interest in this topic was by a news release. That always makes it difficult to know if the request is serious, or just headline-hunting," Wicker said in an email. "What I do know is that a lot of senators are interested in fuel prices, including Sens. Bingaman and Boxer. I’m sure they will review this request when Congress returns."

Democrats also have requested inquiries concerning the price increases. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have both urged the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation.

Waxman and Feinstein suggested fuel marketers manipulated prices by intentionally shorting supplies.

In their letter, Murkowski and Inhofe referenced the Feinstein’s allegations.

“[R]ecent requests for investigations by some have alluded to market manipulation and pricing gouging by ‘unknown persons.’ For those who believe that this is contributing to price increases, we should also diligently explore whether or not that is the case,” they said.

Feinstein said she wants to improve gasoline market data collection and create an oversight program for fuel markets. She said any program should use the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s electricity market monitoring system as a model.

Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said refinery accidents and temporary closures in California have reduced gasoline supplies. He said that “supply crunch” creates opportunities for market manipulation, pointing to Enron’s maneuvers in California’s electricity markets in the early 2000s as an example.

Boxer said she, along with Feinstein, called on the FTC and Justice Department to investigate claims of market manipulation. She said the senators are waiting on the results of the reviews.

In a statement to The Hill, Boxer also called Inhofe's and Murkowski's assertions that regulations might have contributed to the gas price increases dubious.

“Claims that Clean Air and public health protections are the issue are the same old tired attacks that we’ve heard from big oil and special interests time and time again," she said.

— Updated at 2:24 p.m.