- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Senate has unanimously approved an amendment asking the Federal Trade Commission to begin a nationwide investigation into whether oil companies, distributors or gasoline station owners are gouging prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“We must find out, not speculate, not accuse, not assume — but find out whether or not gas-price gouging is occurring through the supply chain or distribution markets,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, who proposed the legislation.

The FTC has been working on a study looking for collusion and gas-price fixing since 2001 but has never found evidence of gouging.

Nationwide, the average price at the pump continued to fall. Yesterday, the price fell 2 cents to $2.92 after peaking at $3.06 per gallon Sept. 5, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Prices in the Mid-Atlantic region and the District especially have been significantly higher than the national average since the hurricane. Yesterday, the average in the District fell a penny to $3.29 after peaking at $3.38 on Sept. 7, AAA said.

The District, which had the most expensive gas in the nation compared with the 50 states for much of last week, now has the second most expensive gas to Hawaii, where motorists pay an average of $3.58 at the pump.

Across the country, drivers are paying about a dollar more for regular fuel than a year ago.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, complained that her state once had the nation’s third-highest gas prices, behind the District and New York and, “no one can tell us why.”

“We in Maryland are hot. We are absolutely hot about these gas prices,” Miss Mikulski said.

Fuel now costs an average of $3.11 in Maryland, the seventh-highest in the nation. In Virginia, gas costs an average of $2.95 a gallon.

The $1 million amendment mandating the investigation into price gouging was passed Wednesday as part of the pending appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments for fiscal 2006, which starts Oct. 1.

Price gouging has no clear definition. In state laws against it, it is described as “unconscionable prices” after a disaster.

According to the bill, the FTC would investigate, as an initial indicator of price gouging, a geographic area that had a higher average price of gasoline this month than August unless there is “substantial evidence” that the increase can be attributed to additional costs of production, transportation, delivery and sale.

The FTC declined to comment on the pending legislation.

If the FTC were to find evidence of price gouging, the information would be sent to state attorneys general, who are responsible for potentially pressing charges, said Rodell Mollineau, spokesman for Mr. Pryor. There is no federal law against price gouging.

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

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