President Barack Obama proposed higher penalties for companies accused of oil market manipulation and sought more money for government oversight on Tuesday, trying to blunt the impact of high energy prices on his re-election chances.
Republicans, who blame Obama's energy policies for high gas prices, immediately called the effort a political ploy.
Gasoline prices have surged nearly 50 cents since late January, as tensions in the Middle East and supply disruptions bolstered oil costs. While prices at the pump have eased slightly in the past two weeks, gasoline remains around $3.92 a gallon nationwide. Obama has spent weeks trying to show he is on the case to bring down energy costs over the short- and long-term.
On Tuesday, the White House laid out five ways to crack down on oil market manipulation, one of the elements it blames for high fuel prices. Civil penalties for firms involved in market manipulation would rise to $10 million from $1 million and would be assessed for each day the manipulation occurs rather than on a per-violation basis under the new proposal. Maximum criminal penalties would rise to $10 million as well.
The White House also asked Congress to give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission authority to require traders to have more collateral when they trade oil in an effort to reduce risky trading.
Obama is also calling for more funding to increase CFTC surveillance and enforcement staff and to improve technology. "At a time when American consumers are feeling pain at the pump, it is critically important to ensure that illegal manipulation, fraud and market rigging are not contributing to gas price increases," the White House said in a statement.
A statement by the president on the issue was underway in the White House Rose Garden at 11:10 a.m. EDT (1510 GMT).
"If there's fraud going on, the administration has the tools to stop it," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for Republican speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.
"The truth is the president's policies are restricting American energy production, and he's looking for a scapegoat. The American people aren't going to buy it."
(additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe)