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US panel to study rising cost of gasoline

Obama wary of fraud, signs of overcharging

By Julie Pace
Associated Press / April 22, 2011

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RENO — President Obama announced yesterday that the Justice Department is assembling a team to “root out any cases of fraud or manipulation’’ in oil markets that might be contributing to $4-a-gallon-plus gasoline prices.

“We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of the American people for their own short-term gain,’’ Obama said at a town hall-style meeting at a renewable energy plant in Reno.

Houshold budgets already crimped by layoffs, pay cuts, and tighter credit have little room to absorb higher gas prices, which hit an average of $3.83 a gallon in the Boston area yesterday, according to AAA — about a dollar higher than a year ago. The Energy Department projects that the average US household will pay $825 more for gas this year than in 2010.

Obama, decrying such levels “at a time when things were already pretty tough,’’ said Attorney General Eric Holder was forming the Financial Fraud Enforcement Working Group.

It will focus some of its investigation on “the role of traders and speculators,’’ Obama said. The group will include several Cabinet department officials, federal regulators, and the National Association of Attorneys General.

Some of its investigation will center on “the role of traders and speculators,’’ Obama said. The group will include several Cabinet department officials, federal regulators, and the National Association of Attorneys General.

In a statement in Washington, Holder promised to “be vigilant in monitoring the oil and gas markets for any wrongdoing so that consumers can be confident they are not paying higher prices as a result of illegal activity. If illegal conduct is responsible for increasing gas prices, state and federal authorities should take swift action.’’

However, in a Justice Department memo accompanying his statement, Holder suggested that no evidence had turned up yet of unlawful price manipulation.

“Based upon our work and research to date, it is evident that there are regional differences in gasoline prices, as well as differences in the statutory and other legal tools at the government’s disposal. It is also clear that there are lawful reasons for increases in gas prices, given supply and demand,’’ the memo said.

“Nonetheless, where consumers are harmed by unlawful conduct that has the effect of increasing gas prices, state and federal authorities will take swift action,’’ Holder said.

There isn’t much Obama can do to affect the price of gasoline in the short term. Gas prices have risen steadily as a result of tensions in the Middle East and northern Africa and rising demand from China and other emerging economies.

Obama is on a three-day West Coast swing that’s mixing presidential business with reelection campaigning.

Earlier, he told supporters in San Francisco he is pressing ahead with his agenda in a difficult political environment and that “change turned out to be a lot tougher than expected.’’

Obama addressed about 200 people who paid up to $35,800 apiece for the fund-raiser at San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel, the first of four fund-raisers of the day. The other three were scheduled in Los Angeles.

Between his California events, Obama went to Reno and spoke at ElectraTherm Inc. He spoke in front of a machine that produces renewable energy from low-temperature heat waste.

Even though he’s running for reelection from the White House, Obama said he still wants to mount a grass-roots campaign. “We need you now more than ever,’’ he said. “Your engagement, your involvement, your commitments are going to be critically important.’’

Political tensions have increased lately, with a near government shutdown earlier this month, a showdown looming on raising the nation’s borrowing powers, and the ongoing debate over long-term deficit reduction.

Obama has called on Republicans and Democrats to work together. But Republicans, egged on by Tea Party activists, are demanding more spending cuts than Obama has proposed and are resisting his call for raising taxes on the wealthy. And, as Obama eases into his 2012-relection campaign, many of his liberal backers are pressing the president against making further concessions to the GOP on spending cuts and taxes.

Obama was interrupted by a small group among the paying guests who protested the detention of Bradley Manning, an Army private accused of leaking secret documents to WikiLeaks.

“We paid our dues; where’s our change?’’ the protesters sang to the president.

“We’ll vote for you in 2012, yes that’s true. Look at the Republicans — what else can we do?’’

Obama paused while security removed some of the protesters, then joked, “That’s a nice song. You guys have much better voices than I do.’’

Manning, suspected of illegally passing US government secrets to WikiLeaks while serving as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, was transferred this week to an Army prison in Kansas from the Marine brig in Quantico, Va., where he has spent the last nine months.

Obama’s West Coast visit — his most extensive travel since announcing his reelection bid — offered a glimpse of how he will seek to reenergize the independents and first-time voters who carried him to victory in 2008. Obama argues that more work must be done to make the vision of America he promised a reality, and that he is the only one who can see those hopes through.