Friday April 29, 2011

BENNINGTON -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is asking President Barack Obama to replace federal regulators overseeing oil markets as crude oil topped $113 a barrel on Friday and gas prices in Vermont neared an average of $4 per gallon.

Sanders asked the president in a letter Thursday to shake up the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a federal regulatory body that oversees oil markets.

"The skyrocketing cost of gasoline is causing severe economic pain to millions of Americans who have already suffered through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," Sanders wrote. "In Vermont, where it is not uncommon for people to commute 100 miles to work and back five days a week, the increased price of gas is taking a serious bite out of the paychecks of middle class families, many of whom are already working longer hours for lower wages."

A financial reform law enacted last year called for the commission to impose "position limits," which would restrict the amount of oil that speculators could trade in the energy futures market. Those regulations were to take effect by Jan. 22.

But the commission has not enacted the rules, Sanders said.

He said just two of the five sitting commissioners support the limits and it takes three commissioners to adopt a new rule. The president, Sanders said, should insist that the law be enforced and call for the resignation of commissioners who refuse to enact it.

"I urge you to make it clear to the CFTC that they must obey the law and establish strong oil speculation limits as soon as possible," Sanders wrote. "I would also urge you to ask for the immediate resignation of any CFTC commissioner who refuses to obey the law and nominate someone else who will."

Bart Chilton, a CFTC commissioner, said in an interview on MSNBC Friday that he is in favor of stronger regulations.

"I think every time somebody fills up right now they're paying a speculative premium, sort of a Wall Street speculative premium, of several dollars for every tank of gas and we have the ability, Congress gave us the tools as part of this big regulatory reform bill to actually put limits on these speculators, but unfortunately, we haven't been able to do that yet and it's time we do," Chilton said.

Meanwhile, the price of gasoline has risen 80 cents per gallon in the past several months because the commission has taken a hands-off approach to the markets, Sanders said.

In Bennington, the highest gasoline price on Friday was $3.98.

Vermont Rep. Peter Welch has been calling on Obama to tap the country's strategic oil reserves to help bring down prices since February. He was among a group in the House that sent a letter to the president last month. That effort took place when gas prices were about $3.55 per gallon.

Obama, in speech just a few days later, said he would do so "should the situation demand it." He has not taken that step, however.

Welch said Friday he is continuing his efforts in Congress to ease gas prices.

"Vermonters are reeling as gas prices continue to skyrocket. President Obama should use his authority to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and provide immediate relief at the gas pump to struggling consumers," Welch said. "Three of his predecessors have taken advantage of this tool and he should do so immediately."

Welch said he also supports cracking down on speculators.

"We also need to rid the oil markets of speculators driving up the price of oil to make a buck. I am urging House leaders to crack down on oil speculators and to pass legislation to stop price gouging at the pumps," Welch said. "The longer Congress stalls on enacting a sensible energy policy based on renewable energy resources, the longer our economy and our consumers will be at the mercy of unstable and often unfriendly countries for too much of our energy supply."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com