When Congress returns to Washington today after a weeklong breather, the collective grumbling of millions of American motorists will compel lawmakers to prove they're doing something to fight rising gas prices.
So this week, with the help of Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., of Lillington, Congress may tackle an obscure commodities market in a move that some oil experts say could have an immediate impact.
Analysts are increasingly blaming the high prices on excessive oil speculation. They contend that banks and other investors are driving up prices, pushing the cost of a barrel of oil to $60 or $70 beyond its actual value.
Several bills in Congress call for new regulations, more investigators and transparency to let inspectors know who's trading what behind closed doors. Etheridge will help guide hearings in the Agriculture Committee this week, sifting through the ideas to figure out the best one.
For months now, Congress has been arguing about whether to trim Big Oil's profits, give tax breaks for alternative energy or start drilling along the nation's coastlines.
Meanwhile, oil prices continued to soar, hitting a record of $145 a barrel on Thursday at the start of the holiday weekend, as motorists were shelling out more than $4 for a gallon of gas.
“It is no wonder that we hear cries of alarm,” said Edward Krapels, a special adviser with Energy Security Analysis of Wakefield, Mass.
Etheridge hopes Congress will finally take action.
“One good thing that all this is doing, with all the pain we're getting, it's forcing a lot of folks to be doing some real thinking up here,” said Etheridge, who is chairman of a key agriculture subcommittee that oversees oil trading.
Some experts told Congress that half the recent jump in oil prices may be caused by excessive speculation.
Speculators are the banks and investors who buy oil futures on the commodities market — not to use fuel the way airlines and trucking companies do, but to make profits when their predictions about prices come true. The market has exploded in popularity. Much of the trading is regulated overseas, with almost no transparency for United States regulators. So no one here knows who's trading, or whether market manipulation and excessive speculation are actually occurring.