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Editorial: Obscene price hikes

Gasoline price gouging is probably akin to obscenity in one respect: It may defy precise definition, but people know it when they see it on the pump register.
Apparently, a lot of people think they’re seeing it in the wake of price run-ups precipitated by Hurricane Ike’s devastating rumble up the Gulf of Mexico and into the heart of Texas. As of Monday, the N.C. Attorney General’s office had received more than 2,800 complaints about possible price gouging as gasoline prices surged in response to fears that Ike would seriously disrupt output from Gulf Coast refineries. Price gouging was also reported in other states.
Fortunately, the oil platforms and pipeline operations appear to have escaped with less damage than officials feared might result from the hurricane’s strong winds and massive wall of water. With widespread power outages affecting the Gulf region and its refineries, however, it’s unclear when oil production and shipments will return to normal. Until then, motorists are advised to conserve, to comparison shop for the best prices and to stay calm in the face of gasoline prices that were averaging more than $4 per gallon for unleaded across North Carolina on Monday, according to AAA North Carolina. We’ll be living with spot shortages and relatively high prices (compared to a week or so ago) until the supply stream stabilizes, and officials say that could take weeks.
Supply disruptions are no excuse for outright profiteering. It’s unconscionable that distributors or retailers would try to illegally profit from a natural disaster, especially when consumers are already reeling from previous hikes in energy prices. That’s why North Carolina implemented anti-gouging measures and is now contemplating charges against several stations where prices reached as high as $7 a gallon. The Attorney General’s Office should vigorously prosecute gasoline suppliers that try to make a fast buck off motorists who have little choice but to pay up or walk.
Not every price increase represents gouging, of course; in some cases ó we’d like to think most ó store owners and distributors are passing along increases they themselves are having to pay or anticipate having to pay as a volatile market reacts to uncertainty about supplies. But when prices suddenly shoot up $2 or more a gallon, as has been reported in some areas of the state, that’s obscene, and it’s time to send out the subpoenas.

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