Monday, July 28, 2008

Gas Prices: Big Oil Profits Soar, while Transportation Dept. Revenue Drops

The Wall Street Journal reported on shrinking federal receipts as a result of Americans cutting back driving by some 40 billion miles in 2008. It made no mention of ConocoPhillips' recently announced record revenues and profits, but then neither did the company. Big oil hired high dollar word merchants to craft their quarterly profit news releases. In an "I feel your pain" move, they showed the strain of $140 a barrel oil on their operations, while avoiding the record nature of their bottom line altogether.

Americans cut their driving by 1.8% in April and 3.7% in May relative to last year. While demand dropped, what happened to gas prices? They rose some 20% over the same period. Huh? What happened to the relationship between demand and prices? Demand fell while prices skyrocketed?

The federal government's take per gallon is fixed. The Journal pointed out the Transportation Department isn't in a position to increase margins while demand declines. Thus, fewer tax dollars are available to replace America's aging transportation infrastructure. It stated:

"... it also means consumers are paying less in federal fuel taxes, which go largely to help finance highway and mass-transit systems. As a result, many such projects may have to be pared down or eliminated."

They baited the hook, now it's time for the big jerk.

The prospect of the highway fund running a big deficit has sparked a frenzy of lobbying on Capitol Hill, as business groups, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, have pressed lawmakers for a quick solution.

"We're going to spend a lot of time, money and effort on this," said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue. "People need to understand that this infrastructure thing is not optional."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is known for at least two things, besides wanting private industry to replace public infrastructure. One, they want that expensive and pesky health insurance benefit to go away and both political parties facilitate the transfer of responsibility to the individual employee. And two, the Chamber is advised by ex-White House insider Frances Townsend, a friend of private equity underwriter (PEU), the Carlyle Group.

How is the Transportation Department doing under the prospect of less money? It's greasing the skids for their already in place plans to farm out infrastructure to private entities.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said administration officials are crafting an overhaul plan aimed at shaping the debate. The goal would be to give states more flexibility to set transportation spending, while making it easier for them to tap private-sector dollars. Also under consideration: asking Congress to loosen restrictions on states levying new tolls on interstate highways.

Despite Mary's over twenty years working for state and federal DOT's, she has "zero confidence that if we send more money to Washington we’ll get any better results back.” That's quite a revelation. I expected after twenty years, Mrs. Peters would know how to spend money effectively.

Also, recall that people are driving less, which translates into fewer drivers paying tolls. That means government will have to sweeten those deals to guarantee low risk 15% annual returns for PEU's. And don't forget the EPA pushing privatization of water deals, funded by "private activity bonds" and "water enterprise bonds". They were live on CSPAN2 today!