Gasoline costs renews interest in price-gouging bill

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(Host) A dramatic increase in the price of gasoline is renewing interest at the Statehouse for price gouging legislation.

But even backers of the bill say it’s unlikely that the plan would help reduce current price hikes.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Interest in a price gouging bill came in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina when gas prices soared to new all time levels in many parts of the country.

Oil company executives said the price hikes were due largely to a reduction in refinery capacity along the Gulf of Mexico and were not the result of excessive profits.

The legislation being considered at the Statehouse gives the Attorney General the power to investigate possible allegations of price gouging at the wholesale and retail level if the Governor formally declares a market emergency.

This declaration would be triggered by a disruption in supply based on weather, terrorist attacks or other unusual circumstances.

Joe Chocquette represents the Vermont Petroleum Association. He says his group supports most provisions of the bill.

But he doubts that legislation would have much impact on the current climate of high gas prices because there’s no single event to cause the Governor to declare a market emergency.

(Chocquette) “The markets were reflecting nervousness of people about whether or not there would be supply. The situation was markedly different right before and after the hurricane hit. And that’s a situation where the governor would be in a position to understand that there’s a market emergency and declare one and put everybody on notice that we’re going to be watching.”

(Kinzel) The effort to pass the price gouging legislation has been spearheaded by Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill.

Brill agrees that the proposed law would probably have little impact on the current situation. But she says the legislation does allow the governor to declare an emergency if he believes that the oil companies are colluding to control the supply of gas.

(Brill) “The million dollar question in a price gouging situation under our bill will be, is a retailer, a wholesaler a supplier or a refiner using a market emergency to try to jack up prices inappropriately?’

(Kinzel) The legislation also addresses plans where consumers prepay their heating bills in order to lock in reduced prices.

During the winter of 2005 some energy companies reneged on these contracts when prices unexpectedly increased.

This new bill provides consumers with greater protections to require the companies to honor their prepayment prices.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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