State looks at gas price cap

JOHN DEWEESE; The News Tribune

Olympia, WA - 3/15/03 - You can blame Washington's soaring gasoline prices on supply and demand, but there's no evidence of price gouging, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

And even if retailers were fixing prices, Washington doesn't have an anti-gouging law, said David Huey, an assistant attorney general in the agency's consumer protection division.

Huey joined oil industry experts and a representative of AAA during two briefings this week before the House energy committee, which wanted to know why prices are so high and what can be done about it.

The House may push through legislation preventing retailers from taking advantage of a war in Iraq or a terrorist attack to charge unfair gas prices, Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Anacortes) said.

The measure would be modeled after a bill offered a year ago that would allow the governor to declare emergency price caps on essential goods like oil, food or medical supplies. In addition, retailers who boost prices by more than 15 percent - without proof that it's necessary - would face stiff civil fines.

The antigouging bill passed in the House but died in the Senate.

The average price statewide for regular unleaded has risen more than 40 cents per gallon in the past 30 days to $1.86 on Friday, according to AAA, which tracks gas prices nationally.

Retail prices have less to do with rising costs than how a possible war in Iraq and unrest in U.S.-supplier Venezuela have driven up crude oil costs, said Anita Mangels with the Western States Petroleum Association. The association represents the oil industry in six Western states.

"Crude oil has more than doubled in price. It's one of those unfortunate global market factors we all have to deal with," she said.

The cost of refining oil is also more expensive in the West, Mangels said. Washington's five refineries must rely on Alaskan crude oil while the more plentiful East Coast refineries can get their supplies from either Texas or Middle Eastern oil, she said.

Mangels recommended that legislators streamline the zoning and permitting process for new gas stations. Only 20 percent of Washington stations are directly owned by oil companies. Mangels said streamlined legislation would boost small franchise owners and help consumers through increased competition.

Increased retailers can't make a difference if oil companies artificially drive up prices, Tim Hamilton with the Automotive United Trades Organization said. He represents service station owners.

Hamilton noted that last year's antigouging bill targeted retailers. But he questioned why the measure didn't address the failure of oil companies to increase refinery output or buy more oil from the Middle East.

Hamilton recommended that the state set aside tax dollars for an oil reserve the governor could order released if prices went above a set mark.

House Commerce and Labor Chairman Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) is worried not just about price hikes due to a possible Iraq war but also about why West Coast prices are higher than in the East.

"We're at the time of the year when oil prices should be at their lowest," Conway said.

John DeWeese: 360-943-7123

Yet another Tacoma record

Tacoma's average price for unleaded gasoline rose slightly Friday to another record, $1.82 per gallon, AAA said. In the past two weeks, the former highest price of $1.72, set in 2000, has repeatedly been topped. Current average prices:

Regular: $1.82

Midprice: $1.885

Premium: $1.979

Diesel: $2.07


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site