Critique Example #2

Note that unlike Critique Example 1, this example uses other sources to compare and contrast to Simpson’s claims. The basic critique is the same as example 1, and the points made are much the same, but this example uses the outside sources to support the critic’s claims, not just the critic claiming that Simpson is incorrect or used information poorly. This is looking ahead to the synthesis essays that you will be writing later. A critic doesn’t always have the outside sources to do this type of critique, but it is usually a stronger analysis since it does have the corroborating sources.

Critique of “The Real Culprit of Our Gasoline Woes: Environmentalists” by Brian Simpson

In “The Real Culprit of Our Gasoline Woes: Environmentalists,” Brian Simpson argues that environmental regulations are THE reason for high gasoline prices. This article, published in the online Capitalism Magazine, argues for the moral rights of the oil industry to drill and refine oil. Environmental concerns are presented as being a plot to sacrifice the needs of humanity for nature. Simpson admits that oil companies are making high profits, but claims that environmental regulations are keeping the companies from using those profits to expand production. Increased global demand is presented as a positive response to the growth of capitalism in the world which will ultimately lead to more production and therefore lower prices. The later part of the article brings up the global warming issue in order to reject it as a real environmental concern. Simpson’s article reflects its online source by arguing that capitalism will solve the problem of high gas prices as long as environmental regulations are removed from the process.

Brian Simpson’s thesis is presented very clearly. In fact, he has a one sentence summary clearly posted at the top of the article and has an introduction that summarizes the main argument quite clearly. The article uses short, simple paragraphs, reflecting a journalistic style rather than the logical-argument supported with direct evidence model used in academic writing. However, while that style makes it easy for the reader to read and follow, it does create problems with using this article as a source for an academic article. Simpson simply doesn’t support ANY of his claims with specific, cited evidence. He quotes several environmentalists in paragraph 13 to support his interpretation of their positions, but nothing is quoted or cited to support his claims about the oil industry. The biographical information given at the end of the article identifies Simpson as an associate professor at National University, so he should be comfortable with using and citing sources. The fact that only quotes when he wants to condemn people with their own words (and the title) pretty clearly indicates that this is more about attacking environmentalists than it is about the cause of high gas prices.

The Price of gas is a complex issue, with many components. There are high taxes, but most are a flat rate that stays the same no matter what the cost of a gallon of gas, and we have to pay for roads and bridges somehow. Supply and demand can account for some of the increase, but the amount of oil being produced worldwide has not gone down recently. Speculators are driving oil prices to new highs, but speculators simply respond to market demands – they will be the first to leave the market as soon as oil prices begin to go down. There is increased global demand as other countries begin using more oil and petroleum byproducts, but that demand hasn’t suddenly increased – it’s been increasing for a while now, including the years when gasoline prices were still low. To reduce the argument down to one cause, whether it’s taxes or the amount of refineries or the amount of oil being produced or the speculation on oil futures or the rising global demand ignores the fact that the real cause is most likely some combination of ALL of those factors. But this doesn’t stop writers with an agenda from using this topic to take one more shot at their favorite targets. Enter Brian Simpson and Capitalism Magazine and their hatred of environmentalists and environmental regulation.

This article very definitely shows the influence of its online home, Capitalism Magazine. The magazine’s website clearly states that it is based on the belief that capitalism and individual freedom is the solution to humanity’s problems. A quick glance at the homepage clearly shows that they are opposed to any sort of regulations by authorities, especially governments. This bias is especially reflected when Simpson adds the comment that the oil industry is having difficulties expanding in many foreign locations due to “anti-capitalist governments, such as those in Venezuela, Russia and Iran” (¶8). At the same time, greater demand from countries like China and India is okay because they have “moved slightly toward capitalism” (¶10). To truly understand Simpson’s arguments, you have to e able to see the world through his perspective, one where capitalism is always correct and regulation of companies is always suspect.

Simpson wants the regulations to be eliminated to increase the oil companies’ ability to drill and produce more gasoline. Simpson opens the essay by talking about the hundreds of billions of dollars that oil companies spend each year looking for, pumping and transporting oil (¶2). Later in the essay, he admits that oil companies have higher profits (¶8), but puts the “blame” for that on environmentalists. In other words, the price of gas is high and oil companies are recording record profits, but don’t blame the oil companies. They were forced into those profits by environmental regulations because those regulations make it more difficult to supply enough gasoline for the demand. Simpson clearly has to address these record profits if he wants to shift the blame for high prices onto environtmentalists.

Simpson is correct that refineries do have to change their blends of gasoline during the summer, and that there is usually a price hike while supply of the winter blend dwindles but the summer blend isn’t quite ready yet (¶5). However, this ignores the cause for that change. There are different blends for different seasons in different parts of the country to reduce air pollution or to increase the use of ethanol . But those regulations also allow local refineries to have a virtual monopoly in their geographic area, as only they are set up to meet those specific local regulations. According to the Government Accountability Office, 7 cents of a gallon of gasoline in California is due to a lack of competition among refineries (Leonard ¶16). So Brian Simpson’s argument that more competition among refiners, allowing the free market to work, could reduce the cost of gasoline in California by 7 cents a gallon.

One of Simpson’s main arguments is that environmental regulations have kept new refineries from being built, with no new refineries in the USA in over thirty years (¶6). Simpson also shares the fact that refining capacity has declined in the USA while demand has increased. However, while overall refining capacity is down, the total production of gasoline is up nearly 20% in those same thirty years (Leonard ¶13). In fact, in June of 2008, The Wall Street Journal reported that American refiners were increasing their production from 87.9% to 89.7%, their highest volume of the year so far (Campoy A3). American refiners closed inefficient plants and expanded their most productive plants in those 30 years so that while the total production potential may have been reduced, the actual ability to produce gasoline more efficiently and profitably was increased. In fact, in direct contradiction to Simpson’s arguments, at least one California study found that while environmental regulations did increase costs at California refineries, upgrading to meet those regulations caused productivity (and thus profits) to increase drastically compared to refineries that did not have to meet the environmental regulations (Leonard ¶14). So Simpson is correct that environmental regulations make it difficult to build new refineries, but he ignores the fact that those same regulations appear to have made the existing refineries more efficient and profitable.

This profitability is a major difficulty for Simpson’s argument. When Chevron alone is announcing profits of over $5 billion in just the first quarter of 2008 (Leonard ¶10), the reader might be a little bit skeptical that environmental regulations have hurt the industry, much less caused higher gas prices. The reality is a bit more complex. Oil companies are actually losing money in the refining part of their business. Due to the increase in the cost of oil, refinery costs have increased 80% in the last year, with pump prices going up 25% (Campoy A3). The difference has been absorbed by the refineries, who are simply not able to increase the cost of gasoline at the same rate as the cost of crude oil, for fear of true consumer rage. Chevron’s profits from gasoline refining are down 99% from a year ago (Leonard ¶10), so where is Chevron’s $5 billion dollar profit this quarter coming from? From the rest of the company – particularly the drilling part. Chevron, like most oil companies, doesn’t just refine the gasoline, it also explores and drills for oil. 70% of the cost of gasoline comes from the price of the crude oil (Campoy A3) that Chevron, along with other companies and cartels like OPEC produce. So the oil industry benefits from the high price of oil on the market on the one hand while emphasizing its losses on the refining end when the public asks about its level of profits.

Simpson allows that speculation and growing global demand for oil have increased prices, but that they aren’t a true threat to “obtaining these products” (¶ 9). He goes on to argue that speculation is good because the increased price of oil will cause more oil to be available in the future (¶10). However, he does not indicate how this will happen, especially given his earlier claims that oil companies want to spend their profits in exploration and drilling, but can’t because of environmental regulations. If these regulations truly keep companies from finding new sites or new methods, an increase in the profits of speculators isn’t going to change that situation.

As for global demand, Simpson claims that most of this demand comes from countries like China and India “…who have moved slightly toward capitalism…” (¶10) and are increasing their industrial productivity accordingly. Simpson goes on to argue that this increased productivity and capitalism “will ultimately increase the worldwide production of oil and gasoline” (¶10). However, again, Simpson does not actually show how this cause leads to his desired effect. Supply and demand interact with each other, but if there’s only so much oil available, increased demand does not make for an increased supply – it makes for more pressure on the available supply, increasing prices. The only way that Simpson’s argument holds true is if there will be increased exploration and production, despite the environmental regulations that he claims elsewhere in his article make this increase impossible.

In his quest to blame environmental activist and regulations on everything that people don’t like about the economy, Brian Simpson over-reaches. He presents incomplete arguments supported by basic claims that are true, but leaving out the details that clarify the situation. Like most short articles that want to take a complex issue and reduce it down to a simple cause-effect relationship, Simpson’s article ends up reflecting the author’s bias more than explaining the issue. This article could be used in an academic paper to support the claim that this is a point being argued, but the actual argument itself would need to be supported by much stronger sources that actually cited facts, figures and specific examples rather than general unsupported claims.


Works Cited

Campoy, Ana. “Pump Prices Resist Falling for Now.” Wall Street Journal 5 June 2008: A3.

Leonard, Andrew. “Why Gas is so Expensive.” Salon. 29 May 2008. 6 June 2008. <http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2008/05/29/price_of_gasoline/>

Simpson, Brian. “The Real Culprit of Our Gasoline Woes: Environmentalists.” Capitalism Magazine. 3 June 2008. 9 June 2008. <http://www.CapMag.com/article.asp?ID=5195>