WASHINGTON – With Congress and the White House pushing to increases the use of ethanol, the oil industry is scaling back its plans to expand refineries — which could keep gasoline prices high, possibly for years to come.
President Bush has called for a 20 percent decline in gasoline use by 2017 and the Senate is debating legislation for huge increases in the use of ethanol as a motor fuel. So, oil companies see a growing uncertainty about future gasoline demand and less need to increase refinery capacity to make more gasoline.
A shortage of refineries frequently has been blamed by politicians for the sharp price spikes in gasoline.
This spring, refiners, hampered by outages, could not keep up with demand and imports were down because of greater fuel demand in Europe and elsewhere. Despite stable — even sometimes declining — oil prices, gasoline prices soared to record levels and remain well above $3 a gallon.
Consumer advocates maintain the oil industry likes it that way.
"By creating a situation of extremely tight supply, the oil companies gain control over price at the wholesale level," says Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America. He argues the refining industry "has no interest in creating spare (refining) capacity."
Only last year, the Energy Department was told that refiners, reaping big profits and anticipating growing demand, were looking at boosting their refining capacity by 1.6 million barrels a day, a roughly 10 percent increase.
But oil companies already have scaled those expansion plans back by nearly 40 percent. More cancelations are expected if Congress passes legislation now before the Sensate calling for 15 billion gallons of ethanol use by 2015 and more than double that by 2022, say industry and government officials.
"These (expansion) decisions are being revisited in boardrooms across the refining sector," says Charlie Drevna, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.