U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal stopped in Manchester Thursday afternoon, partly because he needed gas, but also because he wanted to push his agenda of reforming the gas and oil industry, which he called a "broken system" that was harming small businesses and threatening the nation's economic recovery.
"My goal is to protect not only customers from astronomically high prices but also small retailers," said Blumenthal, a Democrat serving his first term in the Senate and Connecticut's former attorney general.
Blumenthal stopped at Irving J&A Gas and Go on Spencer Street in Manchester, where he was greeted by Owner John Tischio, Michael Fox, executive director of the Stamford-based Gasoline & Automotive Service Dealers of America, and a throng of reporters.
Blumenthal said he intended to advocate for a number of "common sense" reforms to the oil and gas industry, which is largely driving by speculators whose main intent is to buy the product low and sell it high.
"There are simple, common sense measures to stop astronomically rising gas prices that threaten our small businesses…and are harming our fragile economic recovery," Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal said he intended to push an agenda in the Senate to "crack down" on regulations in the industry, prevent the export of oil drilled from taxpayer lands and put an end to billions in subsidies and tax breaks that large oil companies receive each year.
"If it's drilled in America, it should stay in America," Blumenthal said, noting that "billions and billions of dollars a year go to the big oil companies (in subsidies) despite the fact that they are the most profitable companies in the history of the world."
Blumenthal said the five largest gas companies earned a total of $137 billion in profits last year, "yet every year they receive billions in tax breaks and giveaways." He said repealing the tax breaks would save an estimated $24 billion over 10 years.
Blumenthal cited a recent report from the investment bank Goldman Sachs that speculation by traders who snap up crude oil on the futures market adds about 56 cents to the cost of every gallon of gas.
"Stopping speculation would have a meaningful impact," Blumenthal said. "We would save 56 cents per every gallon of gas."
Tischio said that although gas prices are near their highest point ever - a gallon of regular gas was selling for $4.12 in cash and $4.22 in credit at his station Thursday - small business owners like himself are seeing very little profit.
"The more it goes up, the less we see our customers," he said, noting that it is difficult for a small business like himself to compete with larger corporately-owned chains that can afford a lower margin on the gas they sell and are usually able to negotiate better wholesale prices. "
"People are going to go to those gas prices when they're 15, 20 cents cheaper than your neighborhood gas stations," Tischio said. "People come in and they tell me that I have to get my gas elsewhere because they can't afford this."
Gas stations, most of which are small, family-owned and operated businesses, Blumenthal noted, employ approximately 4,000 people in Connecticut. Tischio said he employs seven people at his station in Manchester.
Fox said that speculation had the largest impact on gas prices, and that he hoped either Congress or President Obama would take steps to implement many of the reforms Blumenthal advocated for Thursday. He said he predicted gas prices would rise as high as $5.50 per gallon of regular gas by summer, which would prove disastrous to the state's economy.
"Right now, I don't see anything that's going to make us miss that prediction," he said.
Blumenthal said there was no "magic bullet" that would suddenly alleviate the growing pain at the pump that many consumers are feeling, but that he planned to use his position and influence in Congress to continually advocate for the reform measures he put forth Thursday.
"I'm going to go back to Washington and press for additional votes on these measures," he said.
And the cost for the senator to fill up his Hybrid Ford Explorer? $50.15 for 11.4 gallons of gas. Still, Blumenthal smiled as he pumped.
"These are better prices than I'm used to getting," he said, referring to the fact that he usually fills up near his home in Fairfield County, where gas prices are even higher.
Fox said he paid $4.32 for a regular gallon of gas when he filled up in Greenwich Thursday morning.