Area gas prices remain stable
By SCOTT BARANCIK
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite isolated examples of $5-a-gallon gasoline elsewhere in the country, gas prices in the Tampa Bay area remained largely steady after Tuesday's terrorist attacks.
Any efforts to exploit the national tragedy may not only be bad business ethics but a violation of state law. When Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency Tuesday, Florida's price-gouging law -- enacted in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew -- kicked in.
As a result, state officials have begun investigating gas price increases of as little as a nickel a gallon and said they may seek civil penalties against those who can't come up with a good explanation.
The average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gas rose just two-tenths of a penny Tuesday in the Tampa Bay area, from $1.369 to $1.371, according to AAA. Auto club spokeswoman Yoli Buss said the supply of crude oil is healthy and predicted prices will remain level -- unless oil-producing countries discontinue sales to the United States, oil distribution networks shut down for fear of terrorist attack or consumers start panic-buying.
There were some exceptions. The Flying J Travel Plaza at State Route 52 in Pasco County raised its price for a gallon of regular unleaded 30 cents Tuesday morning to $1.669, for example. Company president J. Phillip Adams said the increase was appropriate at the time, given the station's short supply of fuel and reports that oil suppliers fearful of attack were closing distribution terminals. As closures eased later Tuesday, Flying J cut its price back to $1.569. On Wednesday, the chain dropped its price to $1.399.
The Florida Attorney General's price-gouging hotline received about 80 gasoline-related complaints Wednesday morning, with unconfirmed reports of hikes as high as 40 cents a gallon. Economic crimes chief Mary Leontakianakols said investigators learned that many stations that raised prices Tuesday lowered them Wednesday, however.
Isolated price increases in the Midwest and elsewhere made Florida's look puny. In Columbus, Ohio, a Sunoco station raised its per-gallon price to $4.99. In Oklahoma City, a Texaco station bumped prices up to $5 a gallon after a supplier expressed uncertainty about the next shipment and price.
Still, Donna Frello, manager of the Flying J station, said a tropical storm that could affect the bay area this weekend could again drive gas prices up. "Depending on how close it gets to our ports, we may have trouble getting gas," she said.
-- Times staff writer Chase Squires contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.
Details of Florida's price-gouging law
A Florida law passed after Hurricane Andrew requires the state to set up hotlines and prosecute price gougers during states of emergency. Businesses found guilty of price-gouging face fines of up to $1,000 per violation, and up to $25,000 per day.
To report suspiciously high prices on gasoline, food, water, shelter or other essential items, contact the price-gouging hotline at the Florida Department of Agriculture and
Consumer Services (800-357-4273) or the Florida Attorney General's office (800-646-0444).
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