Gouger notice upsets oil industry

COLUMBIA -- News that South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster was today invoking a law targeting gas gougers was met with dismay from members of the fuel industry.


South Carolina Petroleum Marketers Association began alerting its members of the attorney general's warning and urged them to keep good records of their operations.

"Our retailers, wholesalers, they're indicted in the court of public opinion for price gouging every day of the year," said executive director Michael Fields.

"I think it's a shame," he said.

Starting Thursday night, gas prices jumped past $4 a gallon as Hurricane Ike threatened American refineries and some stations began limiting gas purchases.

"Our members can justify what happened last night and today," said Mr. Fields. "They can show on their pricing sheet how much it cost them."

Today, he said, he had spoken with a North Augusta retailer who was no longer able to get fuel from the local terminal and was planning to travel to Charleston for his supply. Traveling would be costly for the retailer, said Mr. Fields, and would likely equate to higher pump prices.

There is no specific price that constitutes "price gouging," but the law describes it as charging an "unconscionable price," not due to additional costs or market fluctuations.

If someone is caught gouging, the penalty is up to $5,000 in civil fines, as much as $1,000 in criminal fines and 30 days in jail.

Mr. McMaster said he agreed with Mr. Fields that most gas stations are not exploiting the public.

"The panic and concern is already there, as evidenced by the long lines," said the attorney general.

"I am hoping this advisory and the readiness of the state to respond to price gouging will in fact stop price gouging."

He said his office received 200 calls about suspected gouging by noon today. Mr. McMaster said the public was also calling local law enforcement, the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs and even 911 for help.

As for the gas station operators, "Before they gouge the customers, (they should) calculate the amount they'll make by gouging and compare that to amount of fines and jail times they'll have to pay," said the attorney general.

Also today, Gov. Mark Sanford issued a statement joining with Mr. McMaster "in asking for citizens' help in determining whether price gouging is occurring."

Mr. Sanford urged the public to carpool, conserve fuel and stay home, rather than going out for entertainment.

"I'd respectfully suggest that means avoiding the temptation to rush out and fill up everything we have, because at the end of the day, that's only going to make this pricing situation worse," said Mr. Sanford in a statement.

The governor is encouraging citizens to report suspected price gouging to local law enforcement or to call Mr. McMaster's office at (803) 734-3970 or send an e-mail to gasprices@scattorneygeneral.com.

"We hope that this will give people some confidence that things are not as bad as they think they are," said Mr. McMaster.

Sarita Chourey can be reached at (803) 727-4257 or sarita.chourey@morris.com.



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