Paul Jacob

Have you heard the rumor yet? Oil companies are destroying fuel — emptying, even, gallons and gallons into thirsty desert sands — so that they can keep prices high at the pump. And make tons more moolah.

A friend heard such a rumor the other day. Maybe you have, too, before hurricane Katrina dominated the news and almost every conversation. Such stories were as common as wet dirt back in the '70s, back when oil prices were not only soaring but supplies at the pump were plummeting. Those were the days when we had to queue up in long lines to pump gasoline into our guzzlers. And while in line we had to talk about something.

Trouble is, there's not a gallon — not even a pint — of truth to these tales.

It makes no sense to destroy your own supplies of oil. Portions of one's own stock can have little effect on price levels, so you have every incentive to sell, sell, sell, not burn, dump, and waste. That goes for even the biggest of oil companies. If some mid-level manager ordered good fuel to be wasted like the rumors said, he'd not merely have been fired, he'd likely have been sued — or charged with theft.

Back in the late '70s, people swore to me that they "knew" a friend of a friend whose uncle's cousin was a low-level flunky of some oil company, and that the refineries — or was it the raw oil merchants? or the gasoline delivery companies? — routinely did such things. He witnessed it. Honest to gosh!

Nonsense. These are urban myths . . . that fill a human need to blame somebody. They feed the conspiratorial view of history. If something bad happens, then a few somebodies must be to blame.

It's too hard for some people to wrap their heads around a few obvious truths. Take the current oil situation. People in business make money off our need for petroleum products year in and year out. No urban myths about that.

But a war comes along, the future becomes uncertain, supplies diminish — and then a hurricane wrecks a few refineries and supply lines, reducing U.S. production to the tune of nearly two million barrels per day — and for some reason a few people find the consequent price rises puzzling. All the sudden, the motives that led to supplying us petroleum products in normal times become suspect in troubling times.

This sort of panicked thought leads, all-too-naturally, to a demand: "We must do something."

And here of course is where a few people do some horribly bad things that make our lives a whole lot worse.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.