The Attorney General provides Consumer Alerts to inform the public of unfair, misleading, or deceptive business practices, and to provide information and guidance on other issues of concern. Consumer Alerts are not legal advice, legal authority, or a binding legal opinion from the Department of Attorney General.
The Attorney General's office constantly monitors gas prices to protect consumers from price fixing and price gouging. Over the last few years, gasoline prices in the State of Michigan have fluctuated dramatically, and the Attorney General has taken action when circumstances warrant action.
For example, in 2011 the Michigan Attorney General investigated several gasoline stations in the Madison Heights area that were suspected of price fixing. The investigation led to four guilty pleas and one no contest plea by five Madison Heights gas station owner/operators. All five defendants and their associated stations entered pleas to violations of the Michigan Antitrust Reform Act (MARA) and agreed to pay substantial fines. The stations involved in the price-fixing operation were all located within two miles of each other, and an investigation by our office revealed the details of the price-fixing scheme, which involved the five stations setting their gasoline prices at an artificial level, within a penny or two of each other in an attempt to increase profits from gasoline sales by eliminating competition.
Currently, consumers are asking questions about gas prices. This consumer alert addresses commonly asked questions and discusses the role of the Michigan Department of Attorney General in investigating gas-pricing issues.
Question: When the price of gasoline increases dramatically, who is it that benefits from the price increases?
Answer: The Attorney General's Office daily reviews retail profit margins and actual cost of providing gasoline products to consumers throughout the State of Michigan. Historically, gas retailers (i.e. corner gas station owners) have not appeared to profit from high prices. Instead, high profits have been extracted by refiners and producers farther up the supply chain.
Question: Why do gas prices keep fluctuating?
Answer: Many factors affect the cost of gasoline, including the cost of crude oil, refinery processing, transportation, distribution, marketing, operating expenses, retail station operations, and taxes. The prices we pay at the pump reflect these costs, as well as the profits (or losses) of refiners, marketers, distributors, and retail station owners. Other factors that have also historically affected gas prices include: (1) increasing demand, (2) a historical drop in U.S. refinery capacity, (3) a downward trend in how much gasoline is held in inventory, and (4) regulatory factors.
All told, there are numerous factors that affect both the historical upward trend in gasoline prices and the daily fluctuations we experience. Efforts to monitor these factors continue in this office. Additionally, given the national scope of this issue and its impact on the U.S. economy, the various federal agencies that have oversight and enforcement authority in this area, as well as your representatives in Congress, continue to watch the issue closely and formulate responses. For example, Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act, which gave the Federal Trade Commission authority to police market manipulation in the petroleum industry. This is one of many steps that have been undertaken to monitor these markets and prevent unwarranted high prices. However, as experience has demonstrated, there are always a myriad of factors that contribute to the price we pay for gasoline.
Question: What can the Attorney General's Office do to promote price competition in the gasoline industry and protect consumers?
Answer: Attorney General Nessel is concerned about the effect that high gas prices in Michigan have on the consumer, the State's tourism industry, and the overall health of the state economy. The Attorney General believes that the key to protecting consumers in Michigan is the promotion of healthy, vigorous competition among as many different petroleum refiners, marketers, and retailers as possible. To protect competition in the marketplace, the Attorney General can take action under various antitrust laws.
In some circumstances, the Attorney General may investigate retailers for "price gouging," which, under the Consumer Protection Act, occurs when a retailer charges a price that is "grossly in excess of the price at which similar property or services are sold." However, price swings of 30 - 40 cents per gallon have been common in the past due to international events, natural disasters, industrial accidents at refineries, and other causes, and such price movement does not by itself establish grossly excessive pricing under the statute.
Question: What if all of the gas stations in a certain geographic area raise their prices by the exact same amount on the same day? Isn't this price fixing?
Answer: Retailers are free to independently determine what they should charge for gasoline. Retailers in similar geographic areas often price match, therefore, the cost of gasoline appears to rise or fall at the same time. If they explicitly agree together to raise or lower prices, such an agreement is illegal under state and federal antitrust law. However, numerous court decisions have held that gas station retailers may respond to the price changes of other retailers by unilaterally "matching" their price changes. Without proof of an actual, explicit agreement, the fact that stations match each other's price increases is not illegal.
Question: What should I do if I feel there has been price fixing or gas gouging?
Answer: Attorney General Nessel remains committed to fighting higher gasoline prices when those price increases violate the law. If you become aware of direct evidence of a conspiracy between companies, or have verifiable evidence of a retailer charging a price "grossly in excess of the price at which similar property or services are sold," please contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division:Consumer Protection Division