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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Consumers have filed about 55 complaints with the Louisiana state attorney general's office alleging gasoline price gouging just before Hurricane Dennis slammed into the Gulf Coast, according to a spokeswoman.
The complaints are under investigation, the Associated Press reports, and it is too soon to tell whether any overcharging is involved, spokeswoman Kris Wartelle said. Violators could be subject to civil penalties and ordered to return money to complaining consumers.
The report comes on the heels of allegations of price gouging in Mississippi.
Motorists said they noticed a sudden increase late last week as some residents of south Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states evacuated before Dennis' arrival on Sunday.
James Doty of Lake Charles, who recently returned from 14 months in Iraq, said he paid about $1.99 per gallon during the July Fourth weekend. All that changed in a few days.
"Then it was $2.15," Doty said. "Outrageous."
Tommy Teepell of Baton Rouge, who paid $30.52 for gas Monday, said he noticed the recent hike in prices.
"I am sure it has a lot to do with the hurricane," Teepell said. "I think they (suppliers) are hedging their bets. They are afraid the supply will drop and so they hedge their bets."
The average price of regular unleaded gasoline in Louisiana was $2.19 per gallon on Monday, according to the American Automobile Association. The national average is $2.29 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline and gas prices have increased nationwide recently.
"I can tell you that is not unique to Louisiana," said Mike Right, spokesman for the AAA in St. Louis. "We have seen a dramatic increase in gasoline prices nationwide in the last week or so."
Gasoline prices have risen mostly because the cost of oil hit nearly $62 per barrel last week, said Larry Wall, spokesman for the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association in Baton Rouge.
"When the price of oil goes up, the price of gasoline has to go up," Wall said. "The hurricane probably did cause some supply disruptions and that probably sent prices up in some places. But we already had $2.10 gasoline."
Natalie Babin, executive director of the Louisiana Oil Marketers and Convenience Store Association, blamed higher gas prices on last week's terrorist attacks in London, Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis.
"We hate high gas prices as much as anyone," she said. "People tend not to come into the store to buy that Coca-Cola or a pack of cigarettes when gas is higher. That is when our (profit) margins are lowest, when gas prices are highest."
Further south in Florida, WFTV News reports that the state is now investigating whether a local gas station drove up its prices as people filled up their tanks for the hurricane.
The Florida Department of Agriculture is investigating a 7-Eleven in Lake Buena Vista for price gouging. The manager of the station offered no explanation as to what prompted the state to subpoena the station's financial records.
Statewide, 11 stations were issued subpoenas for price gouging, accused of raising prices between 25 and 45 cents per gallon during an emergency declaration.
The prices at the Lake Buena Vista 7-Eleven were higher than the average, but they weren't the highest. A local Chevron was charging $2.65 a gallon and making no excuses about it.
"Where we are located, the property value here is five times what you would pay in Kissimmee off of 192, and that money has to come from somewhere," explained Chevron station manager Bill Nelson.
The bottom line is, it's not what the stations charge but when they decide to change the price. And, according to the agriculture commissioner, a hurricane is not the time to try and get greedy, even if the gas station is located 300 miles away from the affected area.