With President Bush calling for a 20 percent drop in gasoline use and the Senate now debating legislation for huge increases in ethanol production, oil companies see growing uncertainty about future gasoline demand and little need to expand refineries or build new ones.
Oil industry executives no longer believe there will be the demand for gasoline during the next decade to warrant the billions of dollars in refinery expansions — as much as 10 percent increase in new refining capacity — they anticipated as recently as a year ago.
Biofuels such as ethanol and efforts to get automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars and SUVs have been portrayed as key to countering high gasoline prices, but they are likely to do little to curb costs at the pump today, or in the years ahead as refiners reduce gasoline production.
A shortage of refineries frequently has been blamed by politicians for the sharp price spikes in gasoline, as was the case last week by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., during debate on a Senate energy bill.
"The fact is that Americans are paying more at the pump because we do not have the domestic capacity to refine the fuels consumers demand," Inhofe complained as he tried unsuccessfully to get into the bill a proposal to ease permitting and environmental rules for refineries.
This spring, refiners, hampered by outages, could not keep up with demand and imports were down because of greater fuel demand in Europe and elsewhere. Despite stable — even sometimes declining — oil prices, gasoline prices soared to record levels and remain well above $3 a gallon.
Consumer advocates maintain the oil industry likes it that way.
"By creating a situation of extremely tight supply, the oil companies gain control over price at the wholesale level," said Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America. He argued that a wave of mergers in recent years created a refining industry that "has no interest in creating spare (refining) capacity."
Only last year, the Energy Department was told that refiners, reaping big profits and anticipating growing demand, were looking at boosting their refining capacity by more than 1.6 million barrels a day, a roughly 10 percent increase. That would be enough to produce an additional 37 million gallons of gasoline daily.
But oil companies already have scaled those expansion plans back by nearly 40 percent. More cancellations are expected if Congress passes legislation now before the Senate calling for 15 billion gallons of ethanol use annually by 2015 and more than double that by 2022, say industry and government officials.
"These (expansion) decisions are being revisited in boardrooms across the refining sector," said Charlie Drevna, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.