Oilogopoly/Gasoline Price Archive

Big Oil, holy men, guns, drugs and Alzheimer's

Expanded from the 9-29-1996 Daily Sparks Tribune

Mammon the Greedy is our one true God and Capitalism is his Prophet. (Mammon is an extremely masculine deity.)

His Richness is also a very user-friendly God. We can worship him on our traditional Christian Sunday holy day without going out of our way. Just watch TV. Consume a few products. Receive instruction as to which new and improved consumables you should buy. Read the newspaper inserts. You can even shop from home over the phone. God is great. God is good. God is even generous, provided you can pay on time.

There has not been a rebellion against this ubiquitous Lord in recent memory. Non-materialist religious leaders get exiled, as with the Dalai Lama. Their teachings, followers and countries get extinguished, as with Tibet. As long as they know their places, the anti-Mammons are allowed small tokens, like the Nobel Peace Prize - funded by the fortune of the inventor of dynamite. Even the sainted Mother Teresa of Calcutta was cynically used as a photo opportunity by savings and loan swindler Charles Keating.

Today, billionaire horse thief Michael Milken, our neighbor at Tahoe, is performing Nixonian PR plastic surgery on his post-prison image. Milken's fighting cancer through his family foundation, which is spending big bucks. Actually, you and I are funding his operation. Family foundations are set up as tax dodges by expensive lawyers so that guys like Milken have to pay less to the government. Which means the great unwashed, you and me, pay more. Foundations and trusts are also a handy way to preserve your ill-gotten gains if you have the law and an angry mob on your ass, like Mssrs. Keating, Milken, et al.

Everyone bears stains of the color of money. In a new book published this month, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein wrote that Pope John Paul II cut a deal with Ronald Reagan and the CIA. No wonder the Soviets put a contract out on His Holiness. He was trying to help Reagan muscle in on their territory.

Too bad JPII didn't expand the deal to Mexico and Central America. Catholic priests and nuns have been tortured and murdered throughout this century for opposing the Banana Republic thugs so beloved of our government and the corporate interests which pull its strings.

Remembering the executions of earlier this century, the placid pussycat of a Catholic Church in Mexico hasn't exactly been a strong advocate of the peasants against the government. When not even the purveyors of God offer them hope, when they see they have nothing left to lose, people start shooting. Our principal source of cheap labor now has guerrilla armies operating throughout its central states, targeting high-priced tourist resorts.

Further south, courageous priests and nuns have been tortured, murdered and raped for daring to stand up to the landed gentry.

The chronicles of this century sing a sad litany of U.S. adventurism and oppression of our neighbors to the south. By the mid-80's, it seemed that the Nortè Americanos had learned their lesson. The U.S. congress cut off funding to Nicaraguan rebels and Salvadoran death squads.

Enter Ollie North and His Howling Commandos, the ugly truth of which this country still has no appetite to confront.

When the San Jose Mercury-News broke an updated version of a story even I reported on a decade ago, it was treated like a plague-soaked hypodermic. ABC News' Nightline even discussed the credibility of the paper before delving into the issues raised by Gary Webb's series entitled "Dark Alliance: the Story Behind the Crack Explosion."

The Mercury-News is owned by Knight-Ridder, one of the largest newspaper chains in the U.S. Its circulation surpassed that of the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago. But the story still had a hard time getting any ink nationally.

Documentation of CIA-connected arms-for-drugs operations has been available for years. Thorough investigation always hit the stone wall marked "top secret/national security."

Still, stories slowly leaked out of arms shipped from the U.S. to airfields just inside the Costa Rican border. When the planes returned to U.S. military bases, many of them came filled with drugs. The military base landings ended when two military police officers did their job and inspected an off limits plane, finding a major cache.

The flights were then shunted to private, backwoods airstrips throughout the southern U.S. (Look for Desperado Dole to try to hang even this on Bill and Hillary.)

Maybe one day we'll know the whole truth, but at least the San Jose Mercury revelations take us a step closer. Anticipating the skepticism of the establishment media, the paper has posted all of its evidence, including wiretap audio, on the internet.

I have always felt that the trail would eventually lead to the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, and its two most famous tenants in the 1980's: Lt. Col. Oliver North and Vice-President and former CIA director George Herbert Walker Bush.

Reagan and Bush always served the interests of corporate profit. Three years ago, the PBS investigative program Frontline reported that our former presidents did a deal with the Saudis to lower, then raise, oil prices between 1985 and 1987. The end result was a huge increase in Saudi market share, the destruction of the domestic U.S. oil industry and the savings and loan debacle triggered by the ensuing economic turmoil.

Oily-haired Ron and Texas oilman George did all this while praising the gods of free trade. Hallelujah.

Our reliance on imported oil is today higher than ever, especially after Reagan and Bush killed off alternative fuels programs.

There never has been a free market in oil. The Reagan-Bush tit-for-tat with the Saudis called for an arms buildup in exchange for dropping oil prices. Short-term, everybody was happy. The military-industrial complex was bloated with deficit spending, but inflation was nominally kept in check by low energy prices. Our wages were kept in check during the period, too, but almost no one seemed to notice. By 1984, the middle class had shrunk buy a full 11%. In Nevada, only an obscure congressional candidate tried to make an issue of it in the year of the Ronald's re-coronation.

Reagan's 1981 deal to sell AWACs surveillance planes to the Saudis started a $200 billion arms buildup. It resulted in a network of mideast bases dependent on U.S. technology. To offend the locals as little as possible, the Saudi bases were built largely underground. Our barracks still got bombed and 19 U.S. soldiers were killed earlier this year.

That just goes to show what little gratitude we receive for our largesse to anyone with the right corporate credentials. The most disgusting comment of the Gulf War came from the still-nameless Saudi official who asked why Saudis should fight and die when "our white slaves from America will do it for us."

In addition to making Israel very nervous, the AWACs planes allowed the Saudis to provide instant intelligence to Iraq in its almost decade of war with Iran, our former oil puppet which turned against us. They hate the U.S. for the same reasons the Nicaraguans and Mexicans do: we support brutal regimes which bleed the little guys to benefit the rich.

And so we continue to invest lives and treasure into protecting the profits of Big Oil, which doesn't give three quarters of a tinker's dam for us. The Saudis contributed at least $5 billion to Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. In that context, can you blame Israel for developing at least 200 nuclear warheads in cooperation with the apartheid regime of South Africa?

It's all a game of money and power given a pleasant PR veneer of religious legitimacy. We worship our guns and our gas hogs.

If it were not enough that Big Oil has corrupted just about every institution we hold dear, they now add further insult to injury. Perhaps alone among all media nationwide, only this column has detailed the clever predatory pricing practices of the industry. Guys who trade oil by the barrel have not been challenged by those who buy ink by the barrel. Only this newspaper has printed the story of Big Oil's 15-year campaign to monopolize and manipulate retail gas prices. (If you can find the following elsewhere, please send it to me. I've made calls nationwide to no avail.)

For those of you who have missed the half-dozen or so installments this year, here's a summary. Big Oil on the west coast has refined a marketing strategy to control pump prices. ARCO pioneered it starting in 1982. They created phony, arbitrary "pricing zones." The zone pricing was apparently cleverly devised by corporate lawyers. It has survived despite antitrust laws against cut-throat competition.

I have printed sworn testimony from independent ARCO dealers who say they were forced to sell below cost under orders from the company. The game is to drive independent retailers out of business.

As one dealer recently told me, the only thing that you can depend on is that when gas hits $5.00 a gallon, ARCO will sell for $4.98. ARCO controls the market in every western state in which it does business. Prices in the rest of the nation are generally lower.

Other Big Oil refiners are content to concede to ARCO the lion's share of the market in exchange for taking the lead in getting rid of independent retailers. California had more than 20,000 gas stations in 1972 and has less than 9,700 today. Last week brought new corporate propaganda about how hard and expensive it is for Big Oil to find new locations. Poor babies.

Last week also brought revelations that gas prices in Nevada remain 15% above the national average. How can this be when almost all west coast gasoline comes from domestic wells in California and Alaska? It's all part of the Big Oil shell game, documented only here.

A few weeks back, I printed a letter from a gas retailing executive to the L.A. Times. It has yet to see ink in California. "Seaport terminal employees claim imported gasoline is being bought up...(and) conventional fuel was shipped out earlier this year...West coast refineries are insulated from competition from other refineries around the world," the untouchable letter said. "The key to this insulation is that nearly all of the service stations are tied to exclusive branded contracts with a handful of oil companies owning the west coast refineries. This retail market condition separates the west coast from the rest of the nation where scores of refineries and importers compete to sell gas to thousands of independent retailers."

The pilot program has been so successful that Big Oil is now in the process of buying up and closing east coast refineries. To prepare the public, ARCO recently put out PR that its Alaskan oil fields are declining and that the company has just put together a cooperative agreement with the biggest oil producer in Russia. Today the west coast, tomorrow the world.

Corporate propaganda has been leaking into the business press that heating oil and diesel prices may go up just in time for winter due to a lack of refining capacity and because Saddam Hussein's expected trickle will not hit the world market. This represents an instant replay of last summer's price hike excuses, swallowed whole by our governor and attorney general in their spurious and superficial investigative report released last month.

The reality is that we are having our pockets vacuumed in a market which seems competitive but which is really just another version of the same old monopolistic shell game.

God had better be on our side. Everybody in high positions just below the almighty are not answering our prayers. The shamans of Mammon have sold us out for another 30 pieces of silver.

LEST WE FORGET: The only positive automotive note this week comes from Norah Brennan, wife of the late local motorsports star and car dealer Merle Brennan. I am now finally free to report that Merle's ashes have been scattered at Laguna Seca's turn four, with a little bit reserved for the Truckee River.

An accident at Laguna resulted in Merle contracting Alzheimer's disease, which contributed to his premature death. Those of us who knew him were fortunate to have met an unassuming man blessed with world class driving ability who never let his legend confuse his humanity.

Next Sunday is Memory Walk 1996, a benefit for the Alzheimer's Association. It's the only nationwide event for victims, with money earmarked for caregiver programs. You can get involved by calling (775) 786-8061 or you can e-mail

I'm in favor of any walking activity. It means we'll use less gas, which we all know is in short supply.

Be well. Raise hell.


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Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2006 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past four years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988.

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