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Investigate cost of gas If local pump pain leads the state, there should at least be a reason

Watching the digits whirr upward at the gas pump, knowing that the prices in Western New York are higher than anywhere else in the region, it would at least be useful to know just who we have a right to be mad at.

But the experts apparently can't -- or won't -- tell us. And the government officials who are supposed to be looking out for the common good don't know if they are supposed to prosecute or shrug.

Even if government has little to no role in setting the price of gasoline, it ought to take steps to see that the pricing of it and other vital commodities is as transparent as possible. Only then can we know if existing laws are being broken, new ones are needed, or consumers simply have to grimace and bear it.

Maybe officials just think we won't notice. After all, gasoline prices are down recently, below $3.50 a gallon in many places after having hovered above $4 not that long ago.

But gas prices in Buffalo-Niagara Falls are the highest among the state's eight metropolitan areas. In Syracuse and Albany, for example, the price had dipped to as low as $3 a gallon. In Cleveland and in Erie, Pa., prices are lower still.

There are many reasons why a commodity such as gasoline can trade at different prices in different places. Different suppliers, wholesalers and transporters. Taxes. Competitive pressures that are greater in some areas than in others. Supply chains that are locked into prearranged prices versus those that rely on the spot market.

But when neither AAA nor the New York Attorney General's Office can say what is going on here, it is information that is at a premium.

Is there price fixing going on? If so, who's doing it? Is it illegal? If it isn't illegal, why the heck not? Or are Buffalo-area motorists just unlucky enough to live in an area where the people we buy gas from are over a barrel as much as we are?

Keeping the price paid rationale for any commodity a secret, by conspiracy or by sloppiness, clearly flies in the face of the whole idea of the open market. It makes it possible for some to manipulate prices and impossible for others to do intelligent comparison shopping.

Overlying all of this, of course, is the feeling that maybe we shouldn't really want gas prices to go down. If they go up, and stay up, that encourages changes, not only to personal habits, but to the entire economy. It provides incentives for more efficient cars, better public transit and more responsible use of gas tax money.

But if the price stays high in only a few unlucky spots, there's little to force changes in state or national laws or in the kind of cars Detroit markets.

They aren't going to invent the next generation of hybrid car just for Buffalo.

Because gasoline is an interstate market, sorting out the confusing factors setting its price is properly a federal task. It would be nice if someone in Washington could get around to it before the price goes through the roof. Again.

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