Congressman to Western New York gasoline retailers: We will be watching you

Michael Giberson

From the Buffalo, New York, BusinessFirst:

In a letter sent May 13 by FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz to Higgins, the agency said after a careful and extensive investigation, regulators could not find any evidence of illegal activity in gasoline markets in any of the affected cities. The agency monitored prices in Buffalo, Jamestown, Rochester and Burlington, Vt.

“To the contrary, staff found evidence suggesting that it is unlikely that illegal conduct caused those price levels, although staff was unable to identify precise reasons why retail gas prices in Western New York did not fall as quickly as prices in other Northeast cities,” Leibowitz wrote.

What the agency did note was that after Higgins released an Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) report on Dec. 4, 2008 citing Jamestown and the Buffalo-Niagara regions among the top 5 most “profitable” for gasoline retailers, the prices for unleaded gas decreased from an average of $2.25 to $1.85 by the end of 2009.

Does this last paragraph suggest that a servile and pandering attitude on the behalf of the FTC toward the congressman? I don’t find the FTC letter online at either the FTC’s website or that of the Congressman, so I’m just raising the question based on the news article.

The congressman’s press release suggests, surprise!, that he is quite willing to encourage the view that his actions had something to do with prices falling back in line with state averages:

“Western New York consumers were getting ripped off and we sounded the alarm, which caused WNY gas prices to fall in line with state averages, again proving that when we stand up for ourselves we can get things done,” Higgins added.  After Congressman Higgins publicly released an Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) report naming Jamestown & the Buffalo-Niagara regions among the top 5 most “Profitable” for gasoline retailers on December 4th, 2008, the prices of unleaded gas decreased from an average to $2.25 in Buffalo to $1.85 by the year’s end.

To the congressman, absence of evidence is no barrier to action:

“While we might not have proof of illegal activity or a clear definition of why our prices were so high, what is clear is retailers were acting in bad faith trough some type of implicit collusion and retailers and consumers should know that we were watching then and are watching now and will continue to work to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Higgins.

A quick trip to the price charts at http://www.buffalogasprices.com tells some of the story (start here at the default Buffalo price chart for one month, then add two more upstate New York cities to the chart – Rochester, Albany, or Syracuse are options – and expand to at least 18 months).  Up until the 2008 mid-July gasoline price peak, retail prices in Buffalo tracked prices elsewhere in upstate New York pretty closely. When prices started falling, they fell more slowly in Buffalo than in the rest of the state.  By the time retail prices hit bottom at the end of the year, prices in Buffalo were back in line with prices elsewhere in New York, and since the beginning of the year prices in Buffalo have moved in line with other gasoline prices in the state.

So, yes, prices did fall more slowly in Buffalo. Presumably, a good economic study could uncover likely causes. Those causes may not turn out to be politically useful to local politicians. In any case, of the congressman’s agenda intended to “prevent price disparity in [the Western New York] region” — raise public awareness, push for passage of a federal price gouging bill, push for passage of a bill to prevent excess speculation in the oil market, and invest in renewable energy — only the first is likely to have any real impact on local “price disparity.”

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