- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

The growing disparity between local and national gasoline costs since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast two weeks ago are fueling calls for investigations into price gouging from elected officials and local organizations.

D.C. motorists were again paying the nation’s highest gas prices compared with the 50 states — $3.35 for a gallon of regular gas yesterday, up one penny from Sunday, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Filling up in Maryland, which had the nation’s sixth-highest fuel prices, cost an average of $3.19 per gallon of regular. The average in Virginia fell 7 cents to $3.02 per gallon.

Local drivers are paying more than the rest of the country, where the average price is $2.96, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Thirty states have average costs under $3.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Maryland state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. yesterday announced support of state legislation against price gouging and joined the list of officials requesting calls for an inquiry into whether dealers are gouging their customers.

“We have seen a dramatic spike in the price of a gallon of gas, and working families have taken a real hit,” Mr. Duncan said.

Price gouging, where it is illegal, does not have a clear definition. Most often it’s described as setting “unconscionable prices” in the wake of a disaster.

When Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, gas cost $2.73 in the District. Yesterday, it was $3.35, down from a record high last week of $3.38 — up 62 cents since the hurricane.

“In the eyes of the reasonable consumer, that looks like price gouging, but it’s proving that that may be difficult,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend.

Last week, the auto club asked D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams to investigate price gouging in the District. Station owners found price gouging could face $1,000 fines for each violation.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. met with state petroleum industry executives Friday to discuss why the state was paying the third-highest fuel costs in the nation at the time, but didn’t come out with any answers.

“I understand a spike [in prices] as a result of a hurricane. I do not understand why Maryland has to be a top five or top 10 state,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

Mr. Ehrlich met with petroleum officials again yesterday.

Industry officials attributed high prices to supply and demand and Environmental Protection Agency regulations that make gas more expensive in the state that were lifted last week.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said the governor won’t waive the state’s 23-cent-a-gallon gas tax, saying the governor can’t do it, and even if he did, it wouldn’t be a big enough cut to make a difference.

The attorneys general of the District, Maryland, Virginia and more than 40 other states have started a joint investigation into price gouging, led by Florida and Alabama.

In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner has declared a state of emergency and the state’s anti-price-gouging laws have gone into effect, making it illegal for station owners to sell at “unconscionable prices.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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