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Friday, September 16, 2011

Gasoline Price Increases: Federal and State Authority to Limit “Price Gouging”

Adam Vann
Legislative Attorney

Kathleen Ann Ruane
Legislative Attorney

Fluctuations in gasoline prices in recent years have renewed focus on the role of the government in discouraging “price gouging,” a term commonly used to refer to sellers inflating prices to “unfair” levels in order to take advantage of certain circumstances causing a decrease in supply, including emergencies. There have been legislative efforts to create a federal law addressing gasoline price gouging, including bills that would bar certain commercial practices as well as legislation that mandated the study of pricing of gasoline in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While the federal government has not enacted legislation aimed specifically at addressing price gouging for gasoline, a majority of states have enacted statutes to curtail price gouging for certain critical goods and services, including fuel, during emergencies. Some of these statutes attempt to address price gouging by barring pricing during emergencies that is considered to be “unconscionable” or “excessive” or otherwise is in violation of a subjective standard. Other statutes place a hard cap on prices during periods of emergency based on percentage increases from prices charged for the good or service in question prior to the emergency. All of these state statutes provide leeway if it can be shown that the price increases are the result of increased costs rather than simply a change in the marketplace.

At least three bills introduced in the 112th Congress would create a federal law that specifically addresses price gouging in response to emergencies. H.R. 964, H.R. 1748, and H.R. 1899 all contain language similar to the language found in the state statutes that attempt to curtail price gouging through limits or controls on pricing during declared periods of emergency. As of the date of this report, all three bills had been referred to House subcommittees, but no further action on them had been taken.

Although there is no federal law aimed specifically at price gouging, federal antitrust laws do forbid various types of anticompetitive business practices. For example, Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits unreasonable restraints of trade. It is possible that if a group of gasoline retailers or other retailers collaborated to set prices unreasonably high during an emergency, this “price gouging” could be a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. In addition, while not necessarily tied to retail price gouging, federal statutes addressing monopolies and vertical integration may play a role in evaluating retail gasoline price changes.

Date of Report: August 23, 2011
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: RS22236
Price: $29.95

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