View From Lodi CA: The Sunday Night Drive Remembered
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When I was a young boy growing up in Los Angeles, one of the summer's major events was the Sunday night after dinner family drive along the Pacific Ocean via Highway1 to watch the sunset.

My mother and father, my two sisters and I all piled into the Oldsmobile. Our route varied but one thing remained the same. Before returning home, we stopped at the wonderful Will Wright's Ice Cream parlor.

For a host of reasons, few Southlanders today indulge in the family drive.

For one because of traffic, driving—or inching along until you mercifully reach your destination— isn't much fun.

Second, families don't eat meals together anymore.

Third, the Baskin-Robbins chain knocked Will Wright's out of business decades ago.

And fourth and most importantly with gas prices at their record levels, who can afford such a frivolous use of fuel?

Pump prices are America's number one topic. At the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, I filled up for $3.93. Yesterday, ten days later, I paid $4.33.

Every passing day, retail gasoline prices reach new record levels.

What's going on? Who can we believe? When will it end?

Speaking from the perspective of someone who over the course of his professional career has worked for three Fortune 100 companies, and has in the process built up a healthy skepticism for corporate trickery, even I am amazed at the skillfulness with which Big Oil deflects responsibility.

For months Americans have been told that the soaring price of oil is the result of the Iraq War, market speculation, a weak dollar, insurgent attacks on Nigerian oil facilities, Norwegian labor problems or the current favorite excuse, high demand in China and other emerging nations.

Shell Oil's president John Hofmeister repeated the mantra for the umpteenth time during last month's obligatory Congressional hearings when he said: "As repetitive and uninteresting as it may sound, the fundamental laws of supply and demand are at work." [The Same Old Song on High Gas Prices, By David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times, May 23, 2008]

Oil companies know they can count on their friends in high places, the White House, to continue to stick it to the American people.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave Big Oil an assist when he declared that the culprit is indeed supply and demand. [Paulson: Oil/Demand, Supply Cause for Price Rise, Reuters, Emily Kaiser, Joanne Morrison, May 22, 2008]

Oil executives are united in their opinions on what is not needed: nationalization, any new tax on corporate profits which, they claim, would put American companies at a disadvantage and only further decrease oil supply, a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax which would, they allege, increase demand and only raise prices more and lawsuits against OPEC nations that would do nothing to lower prices.

The one question that the oil executives refuse to answer honestly, preferring instead to surround their already couched responses with smoke and mirrors, is if are they guilty of profiteering.

Of the three major companies I worked for, two were major financial institutions that were forever focused on their corporate clients' "net profit".

And Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil, Chevron and BP, the five largest U.S. oil companies, registered an eye-popping 2008 first quarter aggregate $36 billion net profit.

"Net"—that means after meeting all the expenses for dousing the ever-present refinery fires, reinvesting in gas and oil field exploration and all the other sundry causes given for retail price increases.

Oil executives may not want to reply to the charges of price gouging.

But I will. Without any question, the multimillionaires who manage big oil have raked us over the coals. No end is in sight.

By the way, let me offer a closing note on the evening sunset drive.

A couple of years ago, to my great pleasure, I resumed the practice. And after a critical 2007 illness forced me to take a year off, I took it up again this summer, gas prices be damned.

What I learned while I was sick is much more important than paying more for your gasoline: you never know how many sunsets you may have left to appreciate.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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