By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 6/1/2008 5:23:38 PM ET 2008-06-01T21:23:38

With gasoline prices zooming toward $4 a gallon — and beyond — readers are looking for relief and explanations. If fuel is in such short supply, why are refiners shipping some of it out of the country?

I just read that refineries are exporting diesel. Is that true? And if it is true, then it proves how the oil companies are manipulating the prices!
Craig, Fort Collins, Colo.

You're half right. Yes, despite its role as the world’s largest importer of oil and refined products, the U.S. also exports fossil fuels. As of March, the latest data available, U.S. oil refiners were exporting more than 1.8 million barrels a day of crude oil, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other refined products. The top five destinations for U.S. fuel were Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands, Chile and Singapore.

But no, the export of crude oil and refined fuels doesn’t prove anything about pump prices. What it proves is that crude oil and gasoline are global commodities. They are produced in dozens of countries around the world and consumed pretty much everywhere.

Since the market for oil and fuels is also global, it doesn’t matter where it came from. What matters is where the seller can get the best price. Since oil tankers burn fossil fuels to get where they’re going, higher fuel costs have increased the cost of shipping. So if you’re looking to buy or sell oil or gasoline, you’d rather deal with someone close by.  

This is one reason gasoline prices vary widely from one part of the nation to another. The biggest concentration of refineries is along the Texas-Louisiana coast, where you can usually find the lowest gas prices in the country.

At this writing, a gallon of regular will set you back $3.75 at the Valero station in Texas City, Texas, the Gulf coast town where they make the stuff. (While you’re filling up, check out the Valero refinery on the other side of the street where, on a good day, they churn through close to 250,000 barrels of crude.)

If you own one of those refineries on the Gulf coast, and you’ve got buyers for your product in New Jersey, California and just south of the border in Monterrey, your shipping costs to Mexico are much lower. Although Mexico is one of the world’s largest exporters of crude oil, our southern neighbor is a net importer of refined products like gasoline.

Mexico ships us oil, we refine it into gasoline and sell some of it back to Mexico.

The location of refineries plays another role in exports: Not all refineries in the United States are U.S.-owned.  For example, Venezuela owns the three CITGO refineries in the United States. Most of the 750,000 barrels a day of fuel produced at those refineries is sold at the nation's 14,000 CITGO gas stations, but about 30,000 barrels a day is shipped back to Venezuela, where you can fill up for the government-subsidized price of 19 cents a gallon.

It’s also true that the U.S. exports crude oil — but only little. According to the latest Department of Energy figure, about 29,000 barrels of U.S. crude left the country in March — and all of it went to Canada, which sends roughly 2.5 million barrels day our way.

The exports to Canada represent a small part of the output of Alaskan oil that can be cheaply shipped to nearby parts of Canada.

I work in Iraq and have little time or access to attempt to repair my credit score. There are multiple collections on my report that belong to my ex-wife and were obtained following our divorce. Someone recommended that I use (a credit repair) firm to remove the mistakes. In my situation would that be a safe or effective option for repairing my credit score? Sincerely, Lost in Iraq
Russ D., Camp Slayer, Iraq (Fort Worth, Texas)

More Americans seem to be having trouble with exploding mortgages and high-interest credit card debt these days. That’s brought a lot of strange creatures out of the woodwork —including a variety of “credit repair” specialists who offer, for a fee of course, to work wonders on your credit report and raise your credit score.

What these folks don’t explain very well is that there’s nothing they can do (except maybe help you put stamps on a few envelopes) that you can’t do yourself. Here’s what you can do yourself for free.

Get a copy of your credit report from the three credit rating agencies, Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. In the old days, you had to write to each firm and request a copy. Today, you can go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com and request a free copy from each agency, once a year.

This site, set up as required by federal law, is the only site that’s truly free, so don’t waste your time with imitators. You can also order a copy of your credit score, but there’s a small fee for that report. Don't waste money on "credit repair" kits or "monitoring services" that charge monthly fees: It's cheaper to just order up your score when you need it.

Once you get a copy of your reports, look them over carefully. Make note of any information that isn’t accurate. If you have a general comment or explanation, add a short (100 words or so) statement explaining your situation. Each credit agency handles disputes and corrections a little differently, but generally you can do this by mail, phone or online. It can take 30 to 45 days to get a response.

Keep in mind you can only change incorrect or outdated reports; no one can get an accurate piece of negative information removed. (Not legally, anyway.) If you’ve got a few bad marks, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact: Pay off old accounts, etc.

Be careful about closing accounts with unused credit lines, though; this can hurt your credit because your existing debts will now make up a bigger portion of your total available credit, which can reduce your score. For more on how your FICO score is calculated, check out this PDF download from Fair Issac & Co., the folks who came up with credit scores in the first place.

If you’ve corrected everything but still have bad marks on your report (your car was repossessed, you went through a bankruptcy), you may have to just wait it out. Generally these fall off after seven years. (If you decide to pay off an old debt, keep in mind the clock on those seven years may start up again when you start repayment.)

If you need help sorting through the process, you should contact the National Foundation for Credit Counselors, who can refer you to someone who can help over the phone.  (Check here for locations in Fort Worth or elsewhere.)

The Federal Trade Commission, which fields complaints about credit repair scams, has more information on its Web site to get your started.

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