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Gas prices are falling, but does the White House deserve credit?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Gasoline prices are falling around the country, and that's welcome news for Democrats this midterm election season because voters pay a lot of attention to prices at the pump. But should politicians really get credit for those prices falling? And should the White House be blamed when prices go up?

Well, to help us answer those questions, we're joined now by NPR's Camila Domonoske. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So I drive an electric car, so I confess I have not been obsessing about the up and down of gas prices as some of my friends have. But...

DOMONOSKE: Rub it in. Rub it in.

CHANG: I know. Sorry. Go electric, guys. Obviously, gas prices are super critical when it comes to people's budgets. So what is driving those price changes right now?

DOMONOSKE: There are two really big forces at play. One of them starts in September. That's when problems at refineries sent prices skyrocketing in some parts of the country, including out there in California. And Anlleyn Venegas is with AAA. She's based in San Diego.

ANLLEYN VENEGAS: We were seeing every day gas prices increase by 10, 15, sometimes 20 cents.

DOMONOSKE: This was intense. But again, it was due to problems at refineries. And those refineries are coming back now. Meanwhile, it is now fall. It's autumn. And that doesn't just mean pumpkin spice everything. That also means that demand for gasoline drops. This always happens. Americans drive less when it's colder out. So you put those two things together and, yeah, the national average, it's just going down.

CHANG: Interesting. OK. But President Biden made a big speech about gas prices, and he announced, like, another release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves. Did that actually help push prices down, too?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. This latest announcement, it was really more of an update about the decision that was announced months ago. There wasn't any new oil involved. Here's Patrick De Haan from the price tracking app GasBuddy.

PATRICK DE HAAN: Because it wasn't a new announcement. The market had been expecting that. It's really not moving the needle.

DOMONOSKE: As for what's really moving the needle, it's the same thing that's always moving the needle - markets. Prices are set in a market between sellers and buyers. So if you want to know why prices have been on such a rollercoaster this year, take your pick. You've got Russia invading Ukraine. You've got OPEC+ cutting production. That sent oil prices up. You've got worries about a global recession and now the change in the season driving prices down. I mean, all of these things are well beyond the control of whoever is in the White House.

CHANG: Right. Totally fair. But I am curious. Like, could the government do something to set energy prices?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, that's a really interesting question right now in particular. I mean, obviously, there are some governments that always own oil development in their country and just set prices - I mean, Iran or Venezuela. But if you look at some countries that have energy markets much more like in the U.S., countries in Europe, right now, they're trying something unusual. Because prices have gone haywire and they're worried about supply, they're looking at windfall taxes and rebates and price caps - all these attempts to change prices really directly.

CHANG: And how is that working out?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it's way too early to say. But the point is that for now in the U.S., that approach is not on the table politically speaking. Folks in D.C. just don't have a ton of tools to move gas prices around, even if voters act like they control them.

CHANG: That is NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thank you, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.