Sorrell says gouging law sends message

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(Host) Vermont has a new gasoline and fuel oil price gouging law in place to help deal with rapid increases in prices caused by severe weather or acts of terrorism.

Backers of the bill say the law isn’t intended to deal with higher prices that aren’t the result of a market emergency.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The legislation was proposed after gas prices skyrocketed in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina.

A key provision of the legislation requires the governor to declare that a market emergency has taken place – this could be a hurricane, ice storm or an act of terrorism.

Once this declaration has been made, the Attorney General has the power to seek records from retailers and wholesalers to see if prices have been raised beyond reasonable amounts.

Attorney General William Sorrell says the new law would have little impact on the recent run up in gas and heating oil prices because these increases aren’t the result of a market emergency:

(Sorrell) “Current fuel prices probably wouldn’t be declared a market emergency but certainly what we saw just post Hurricane Katrina, a number of states that have these price gouging laws their governors declared market emergencies at that time.”

(Kinzel) Recently the Federal Trade Commission ruled that it could find no evidence of price gouging by the major oil companies in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Sorrell says he’s disappointed by the FTC’s study.

Sorrel thinks the major impact of the new Vermont law may be the message that it sends to the oil industry:

(Sorrell) “This is an indication that not only in Vermont but in the other states that, Hey, we’re watching. This is a huge consumer concern and we’re not going to totally sit on our hands and let you drive prices anywhere you want to drive them and make profits at our expense that are really unconscionable.'”

(Kinzel) Sorrell says the new Vermont law does include some important provisions for consumers who pre-purchase their heating oil at a specific price.

The law makes it clear that oil dealers cannot cancel these contracts in the event that prices increase dramatically during the contract period and it allows retailers to sue their wholesalers if sufficient supplies are withheld from the local market.

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

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