President Joe Biden called on US regulators Wednesday to look into the causes of the nationwide spike in gasoline prices, which he says are hurting workers.
The president last week made fighting inflation a top priority after data showed consumer prices hit a 30-year high in October, fueling a slump in his public approval.
In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Biden took aim at oil companies he says are raising prices at the pump even as their expenses decline and profits soar.
He instructed the agency to look into whether "illegal conduct" is behind the energy price spike.
"I do not accept hard-working Americans paying more for gas because of anti-competitive or otherwise potentially illegal conduct," Biden said in the letter.
Despite signs the US economy has bounced back strongly from the damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Biden has paid a political cost as global supply chain snarls have caused shortages and driven an uptick in prices of everything from cars to food to gasoline.
Biden said the prices at the pump are not justified by the fundamentals of the market, noting that while the cost of unfinished gasoline has dropped more than five percent over the past month, retail prices rose three percent.
At the same time, oil companies "are generating significant profits," with the two largest on track to nearly double net income compared to 2019 and planning major stock buybacks, he said in the letter.
Biden instructed the FTC to "bring all of the commission's tools to bear if you uncover any wrongdoing."
The agency declined to comment on its investigations, but spokesman Peter Kaplan told AFP, "The FTC is concerned about this issue, and we are looking into it."
In response to a previous request over the summer from Biden to examine gas prices, FTC Chair Lina Khan pledged to investigate any collusion that might be fueling the inflation, as well as take a closer look at mergers in the industry that reduce competition.
In June, the regulator ordered 7-Eleven and Marathon Petroleum to sell off nearly 300 gas stations after their $21 billion merger violated antitrust rules by leaving hundreds of communities without alternatives to buy fuel.
Average US prices at the pump fell to $3.41 a gallon as of Monday, 11 cents higher than a month ago, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).
That average is 81 cents more than in 2019, before the pandemic hit and kept most Americans at home.
"Unfortunately, the ongoing tight supply of crude oil will likely keep gas prices fluctuating, instead of dropping, for some time," AAA spokesperson Andrew Gross said in a statement this week.