Florence’s gas gouging passes WNC
While Hurricane Florence spared much of The Smoky Mountain News coverage area when it rolled through the region last week, the same can’t be said for a vast portion of the North Carolina coast, which saw rainfall totals of more than 33 inches in places.
But along with that natural disaster down east came a more human-precipitated one that likewise had little to no effect on Western North Carolina — or at least on Haywood County.
“We’ve received over 500 complaints of price gouging,” said N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein Sept. 17, as parts of the state were still under water.
Classical economists may say that gouging is simply a reflection of the most efficient allocation of resources during times of limited supply — say, discouraging purchases of chainsaws by those who need them least — but price gouging is a crime in North Carolina, and can often appear in alongside earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other such calamities.
Although it can occur on most any commodity from bread to bars of soap, gouging is most often associated with lodging and gasoline sales and is certainly most visible on the marquees out in front of the gas pumps. Stein is charged with investigating and enforcing the law.
“About half of those complaints concern gasoline,” Stein said. “Combined with water, that makes up about 80 percent of complaints, with the number three issue being hotels.”
As the storm drew near still packing a fair degree of uncertainty, Haywood County found itself precariously situated as a place people might flee to, or from — ripe conditions for gouging.
North Carolina’s anti-gouging law takes effect upon the declaration of a state of emergency, which Gov. Roy Cooper declared across the state Sept. 7. Several Haywood County governments did the same on Sept. 14.
“What we do in the AG’s office is protect people and make sure consumers are treated fairly when they do business,” he said. “If a company is exploiting people during a declaration, then our job is to protect them.”
Stein said he’s seen claims of gas going for more than $5 a gallon. State law defines gouging as “an unreasonably excessive price on a necessity,” so there’s no set mathematical formula for determining what is, and what is not, unreasonable.
“What we do is we look at the price of a commodity two months before, and then we look at the price today,” he said. “Then we ask if there is any justification for it. And sometimes there is.”
As an example, Stein said a hardware store might order a rush shipment of generators before a storm, paying a premium to have them delivered in time. In that case, the higher price may be justified.
“If we conduct our investigation and conclude they broke the law, we try to do a few things — first, get the consumer their money back,” he said, adding that at $5,000 per violation, price gougers run the risk of paying dearly for taking advantage of customers.
A Smoky Mountain News survey of gas prices from just before the storm reached the area on Sept. 13 through its impact on Sept. 16 until its departure on Sept. 17 showed that not only was there no gouging to speak of, the average price of both diesel and regular gasoline — paid for in cash, without any rebates or “gas club” rewards — actually declined slightly.
Most of the state complaints, according to Stein, originate from the Triangle and east.
“We’ve had them from Durham, Raleigh, Jacksonville, areas that have been impacted by the storm,” he said. “We have had them from all across the state, but not nearly as many from the west.”
The Haywood County survey included 16 gas stations from Maggie Valley to Hazelwood; data was collected around noon each day. Over those five days, the average price of a gallon of regular gas — not including that pesky nine-tenths of a cent — dropped ever so slightly, from $2.7381 to $2.7350.
In fact, only three of the 16 stations surveyed raised regular gasoline prices at all; the Sunoco on Soco Road went from $2.69 Sept. 13 to $2.71 the next day, the Shell on Russ Avenue went from $2.72 to $2.75 over that same period and the Shell on South Main Street and Pigeon Street in Waynesville went from $2.79 on Sept. 16 to $2.80 on Sept. 17, as fairer weather returned to the region.
Over the course of the survey, 10 of 16 stations made no changes whatsoever to regular gas prices, and three stations — both area Ingles locations, as well as the Sunoco on Dellwood Road — actually decreased prices.
Of the 16 stations, only 12 also offered diesel fuel, which for whatever reason saw a greater average price decline than gasoline, going from an average price of $3.0617 on Sept. 13 to $3.0467 on Sept. 17. Eight stations made no changes, and four stations — again, both Ingles locations and the Sunoco on Dellwood, plus the Exxon at South Main and Pigeon Streets in Waynesville — decreased prices, as much as 6 cents a gallon.
“The vast majority of businesses want to do right by their customers,” said Stein. “They’re our neighbors, just like any other neighbor, and many of them go above and beyond. Just opening the door in some cases can be a Herculean effort.”
According to AAA, the average gas price in the continental United States as of Sept. 17 was $2.851 per gallon; it’s highest from the Rockies to the West Coast, but lowest in the Gulf states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. North Carolina remains well below the national average at $2.689 a gallon, almost a full buck below California’s nation-leading $3.635.