Editor's note: Mark Whitaker is executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide. He is responsible for leading editorial coverage across CNN's multiple platforms and directing the overall approach, tone and scope of CNN's reporting.
(CNN) -- On the surface, it doesn't make sense. Still hurting from the economic crash, Americans are driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars. The United States is producing more of its own oil and natural gas than it has in a long time. Yet the price we pay to fill up our gas tanks keeps going higher. It's close to $4 a gallon in many parts of the country and climbing.
Should we blame the speculators, those big investors who snap up oil contracts today on a bet that they will be worth more tomorrow? It's easy to work up a lather of outrage about these guys: The same reckless hedge funds and banks that plunged us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s are now prolonging it by greedily inflating the price of the one commodity that we can't live without!
But it's not that simple. In fact, probably no fact of our daily economic life is as universally felt and poorly understood as gas prices.
That's why we at CNN have decided to devote our latest series of In Depth reports to sorting out what's behind the sticker shock at the pump and how it could become a factor in this year's presidential election.
On Tuesday, chief business correspondent Ali Velshi will appear on "Starting Point With Soledad O'Brien" and other shows throughout the day to assess the role of speculators. We'll be examining critical questions:
How much does the recent bidding for oil reflect a rational fear that escalating tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions could cause Tehran to block the Strait of Hormuz, choking off access to much of the world's oil supply? How much of it is a cynical wager on bubble psychology? And how much of a difference do speculators really make, once you cut through the fog of easy indignation?
On "The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer," our new aviation and regulation reporter Lizzie O'Leary will explain what's actually involved in buying and selling a barrel of oil -- and whether it's a rigged game that only big conglomerates and investors can play. And on her prime-time "OutFront" show, Erin Burnett will step back and look at the global market for oil, examining where all the demand is coming from and how a global thirst for oil as far away as China for can affect the price you pay at your station around the corner.
On "CNN Newsroom" throughout the week, we will also drill down, so to speak, on aspects of the problem that you rarely see explained on television: How oil refineries work, how the availability of "surplus gas" from independent oil companies can play havoc with pump prices, and what effect the squeeze on oil will have on the market for alternative energy.
Through iReport, you can send us your own videos documenting the pain at your local pump and tell us how your own driving habits have changed. Writers on our Opinion page will debate the causes and the fallout, and in our latest of our Explain It To Me video tutorials, Velshi offers a 101 primer on why gas prices go up and down.
And because this is another big week in Election 2012, our political reporters and analysts will weigh in on the implications for the presidential race. Just as President Barack Obama is nurturing a narrative of a slowly healing economy, the GOP is looking at the price of gas as Exhibit A that his administration remains a failure.
But before they get to make that case in the fall, the Republicans will have to settle on a candidate, a ride that so far has been much wilder than anyone predicted.
Will they be any closer after the Michigan and Arizona primaries? Tune into CNN's special coverage all through the evening on Tuesday to find out.