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Pump prices prove problematic
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Forsyth County News

Michelle Nicholas, manager of the Lakeland Plaza Chevron in Cumming, managed to stay ahead of the recent gas crush while surrounding stations were running out of fuel.

The station's distributor "kept the trucks coming in for us," Nicholas said Monday. "We paid the price for it, but we didn't run out."

With the pumps at nearby competitors drying up, she said, the station could have tried to take advantage and raise prices, but "we're not price gouging."

Many stations across the state ran out of gas at some point over the weekend. While prices rose everywhere, the jump was higher in some places, prompting the governor to activate the state's price-gouging statute.

"We expect the prices that Georgians pay at the pump to be in line with the prices retailers are paying," said Gov. Sonny Perdue in a statement. "We will not tolerate retailers taking advantage of Georgians during a time of emergency."

People were encouraged to report potential gouging to the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, where the phone lines remained busy throughout the day Monday.

Compounding the frustration for motorists, the cost of oil per barrel is at a seven-month low, while the average cost of gas in Georgia has reached near-record highs.

On July 17, oil was $147 per barrel, an all-time high. During the next few weeks, gas remained above $4 in Georgia, with the state average at $4.04 July 20.

The cost per barrel dropped a few dollars below $100 by Monday, but the state's average gas cost was $4.02.

"You can't judge the current prices in relation to crude oil prices," said Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South. "The reason why retail prices are high is because wholesale prices have gone up as a result of [Hurricane] Ike.

"We've lost a lot of refinery capacity, at least temporarily and we're probably looking at another week or two before ... the cost comes down."

In anticipation of the hurricane hitting Texas refineries, consumers were lining up at the pumps to make sure their tanks were topped off.

That type of panic purchasing may give customers peace of mind, Laskoski said, but it actually aggravates the cost increases and product shortages that are causing the initial panic.

"That just makes things worse because it's difficult for retailers to plan deliveries based on consumer behavior, when consumer behavior is irrational," he said.

"The best recommendation is for people to simply go about their normal routine. If they're not going anywhere, there's no reason to top off the tank."

While some stations in the state were charging $5 per gallon, the highest Nicholas' gas had been was Monday, at $3.97, still below the state average.

"Customers appreciate us doing what we're doing and not ripping them off," she said, adding she's not happy with other stations that increase prices.

"I think it's wrong. It's price gouging and it's not fair to the customer."

Laskoski recommends that gas retailers save their invoices to justify their increases reflected wholesaler hikes. He also said consumers should hold onto their receipts, just in case.

"Everything has a paper trail," he said. "But just because prices spike, that's not evidence of gouging."

"I think we can expect to see these prices come down fairly quickly, once the capacity has been restored."