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News brief: gas prices fall, remembering Charlottesville, Iran nuclear talks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The national average for a gallon of gas has dropped below $4, according to AAA.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's a sharp drop from where prices were a little over a month ago, when the average hit $5 for the first time ever.

MARTINEZ: For more on where gas prices may be headed, we're joined by NPR's Arezou Rezvani, who covers oil and energy markets. All right, so gas prices have fallen a whole dollar in just a little over a month. What is driving this?

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: So it all boils down to good old supply and demand. Global oil prices are down because demand is down. And you can see this here in the U.S. I mean, earlier this summer when gas prices hit an all-time high, consumer demand cooled off. People stopped filling up their tanks like they once did. Some changed their summer travel plans, maybe postponed that cross-country road trip. So that's one side of it. The other side involves oil supply. The U.S. released a lot of oil from its emergency reserves. And oil producers have been capitalizing on higher oil prices by increasing production. So that's why we're seeing gas prices drop so much so fast.

MARTINEZ: All right, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed here - does this mean all gas prices are going to continue to drop? Or what are we looking at here?

REZVANI: So analysts I've spoken with say, yes, prices will continue to drop, at least for the short term. But longer term, the picture is a bit more complicated. I spoke with Patrick De Haan. He's an analyst with GasBuddy. And he says prices will probably drop another $0.20 to $0.30 in the coming weeks. But he's keeping a close eye on weather forecasts. Here's what he told me.

PATRICK DE HAAN: As we progress through August, we do start to see more tropical activity in the latter half of the month and into September. So there's certainly a risk of disruption moving forward.

REZVANI: So if there is a big storm that hits, something on the scale of a Hurricane Harvey that swept across the oil-rich region of Louisiana and Texas back in 2017, which knocked out 20% of refining capacity for some time, that could suddenly swing prices back up again.

MARTINEZ: All right, I'll be keeping an eye out on hurricane season. Any other factors at play, though?

REZVANI: Yeah, so geopolitics is another pretty big factor in all of this. Russia's war in Ukraine is, of course, still grinding on. And despite sanctions, some countries are still buying Russian oil. It is still on the market. There are more sanctions against Russia on the way, and there's no telling how Russia will react to that - you know, if they'll withhold gas and oil supplies or keep them flowing. What's also unclear is what certain countries that depend on Russia will do, especially as it starts getting colder. Will they turn to other oil suppliers? Will there be a greater squeeze on the rest of the global oil market? You know, all of this could potentially impact supply, demand and, ultimately, again, could impact prices.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, but what about OPEC? I mean, it was just a few weeks ago that President Biden was in Saudi Arabia, where he pushed Gulf nations to increase oil production. I mean, what came of that?

REZVANI: You know, not much. OPEC Plus did announce a small increase in production, but it was seen more as a token gesture. And there are doubts they will increase oil production by much more. This oil cartel benefits from high oil prices, and so they're wary of overproducing, especially when there are doubts about where the global economy is headed.

MARTINEZ: All right, but what about here at home? What could influence gas prices?

REZVANI: Well, it all depends on whether Americans start filling up again. Right now we're not seeing signs of that. People seem to be holding back because there's still quite a bit of anxiety around inflation, the overall state of the economy and the possibility of a recession.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Arezou Rezvani. Thanks a lot.

REZVANI: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: It's been five years since a violent white nationalist rally rocked Charlottesville, Va.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) You will not replace us. You will not replace us.

FADEL: Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and dozens of people were injured when a white supremacist drove his car through a crowd resisting the show of hate. Two state police officers were also killed in a helicopter crash.

MARTINEZ: Let's check in with NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, what's the feeling in Charlottesville five years after this happened?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: You know, I think reflective and examining what's happened in our country since. I spent some time with Heather Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, recently at the downtown memorial next to the spot where her daughter was killed. She says she visits from time to time to, you know, clean it up, remove the dead flowers and blow kisses, she says.

You know, over the last five years, she's connected with other families across the country who are also victims of hate crimes. They've successfully lobbied Congress to pass a hate crime act that calls for stiffer penalties and provides incentives to better track hate crimes. She calls that progress, but Bro says more work needs to be done to combat what she sees as a well-organized white supremacist movement, a movement she admits she was not aware of until her daughter was murdered for standing up to it. Bro says seeing the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 last year confirmed that reality for her.

SUSAN BRO: You don't have to guess so much who's racist, who's white supremacists, although there are some people who think, well, that was an isolated incident and it died down, but it's amazing how often isolated incidents keeps happening.

MARTINEZ: So what have people there done to push back on racism and then heal from what happened?

ELLIOTT: You know, racial justice activists have been pushing for changes in local government, for example, to address inequities and in things like public housing and schools. More broadly, they're sounding the alarm that events in Charlottesville marked a turning point for the country that emboldened far-right political violence. Here's April Muniz. She was in the crowd when the neo-Nazi drove his car into the counterprotesters.

APRIL MUNIZ: I think Charlottesville really was a catalyst for much of the white supremist chaos that has ensued since.

ELLIOTT: She suffered PTSD and panic attacks and was unable to work for a time. And she grew increasingly frustrated that James Fields, the guy who rode the car through the crowd that killed Heather Heyer, was the only person who was arrested in the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right violence. So Muniz and other victims later sued and won a more than $25 million civil judgment against the people that organized the rally.

MARTINEZ: You know, Debbie, when I think about this violent event, its legacy, I wonder what it means for our society, what it says about us and where all this might be going.

ELLIOTT: You know, that's a question I put to Ian Solomon. He's a former Obama administration official who is now the dean at the University of Virginia's School of Leadership and Public Policy. He says what happened in Charlottesville was a warning.

IAN SOLOMON: One of the things about that weekend of 2017 was it revealed, it reenergized, it revived in many people's minds the reality that anti-democratic forces are ascendant in this country, that hate is quite brazen, to show its face proudly, confidently, with encouragement from elected officials.

ELLIOTT: Solomon says now the question is whether pro-democratic forces can prevail.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks for this look back on Charlottesville.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: European negotiators are getting closer to reviving the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

FADEL: The Trump administration walked away from the previous deal in 2018, reimposing strict economic sanctions. In response, Iran ramped up its nuclear activity. Now the European Union has drafted a new agreement for Tehran and Washington to finalize.

MARTINEZ: NPR's international correspondent Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul with the latest developments. Peter, the EU is overseeing these talks. They include Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany, the U.S. and Iran. And this week the EU gave Iran a bit of a warning. Tell us about that.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the EU submitted what it's calling the final text for restoring the agreement. Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell tweeted that what can be negotiated has been negotiated. It's now a final text. He said what's needed now are political answers, and if those answers are positive, they can sign a deal. So that's where the talks are at.

MARTINEZ: All right, so how did Iran respond? And what's the U.S. been saying about it?

KENYON: Well, Iran basically said the EU, as one negotiator, didn't have the right to declare what a final text would be. Tehran said it would treat this as another proposal for restoring the agreement and would respond accordingly with its own ideas. Now, the U.S. has weighed in, even though Washington is only indirectly involved in these talks. The U.S. hasn't been part of the agreement since Trump's withdrawal four years ago. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this week that what the EU put forward is a best proposal for reviving the deal, one the U.S. can support, and now it's up to Iran to decide whether it's prepared to move forward.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, it was 2015 when the deal was reached, and it seemed to work. Inspectors were making sure that Iran wasn't making a nuclear weapon, and sanctions were being lifted in return. And the Biden administration and Iran said they wanted to go back into it. Why has this been so difficult to do?

KENYON: Well, on paper, it does seem like something both sides could agree on fairly quickly, but in practice, it's been different. There have been obstacles, including new demands from the hard-line government in Tehran. One of those requested that in order to revive the nuclear agreement, Washington had to remove Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Now, that was a nonstarter from the American point of view, but it did take some time to deal with.

There have been other Iranian requests that went nowhere. At one point, Iran was seeking a guarantee that no future U.S. president would do what Trump did and pull out of the agreement. Now, that could only happen if the deal were a treaty, which would have needed congressional approval, which was seen as highly unlikely. So that didn't happen either.

MARTINEZ: All right, so are things coming to a head now?

KENYON: That is what everybody is watching to see. If this deal is going to be revived, a number of things have to happen. From the West's point of view, the most important moves have to include Iran rolling back the violations of the nuclear limits in the JCPOA, getting back into compliance. Tehran, for example, has been creating a stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% purity, and that's a relatively small step away from weapons-grade fuel. So Iran will either have to get rid of its more highly enriched uranium or down-blend it into a much lower level used to generate power in a nuclear reactor.

There's other issues as well. For instance, Washington is charging a Revolutionary Guard member from Iran with planning to kill John Bolton, the national security adviser to former President Donald Trump. The Justice Department says the plot was likely intended as retaliation for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard's Commander Qassem Soleimani in a 2020 drone strike.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

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

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.