Dean Corren, Lieutenant Governor candidate for both the Progressive and Democratic parties, joined Attorney General Bill Sorrell for a campaign stop at a gas station in Burlington Monday morning, but they weren’t filling up.
The pair were hoping to bring attention to the discrepancy in gas prices between northwestern Vermont and other areas of the state, like Rutland. In photos taken Sunday, a gas station in Rutland showed a price of $3.39 for regular while a Burlington station was charging $3.58 – a 19 cent difference.
“There is no reason that has been found – [no] legitimate reason for this to be found,” Corren said.
Sorrell said at the very least, available data shows a need for increased competition in the fuel market in northwestern Vermont. Sorrell said he sees no evidence of collusion, but that his office lacks the data to effectively protect consumers from artificial price hikes.
Both Corren and Sorrell pointed to Costco’s efforts to sell fuel in Colchester at prices they say could be 20 cents lower than the surrounding marker. That effort is caught up in the state’s environmental court after two nearby competitors raised environmental concerns.
“I’m not aware of strong environmental advocacy groups in Vermont that are opposing the permit on that basis, I could be wrong on that,” Sorrell said with raised eyebrows and a grin. “But Costco competitors who have gas stations within a half mile of Costco have strong environmental concerns.”
The candidates said they were sure that if Costco entered the market, fuel prices in Chittenden County would drop, but they called for a state-based solution to the issue as well.
A bill in the Vermont House last year would have required fuel wholesalers to report their prices to the Attorney General’s office and also report any imminent sales in the market. The bill never made it to a vote, but Corren said that if he is elected, he'll use the Lieutenant Governor's role in the Senate to move the issue forward.
He said the data outlined in the bill could help the Attorney General’s office better protect consumers from a price hike that costs them millions of dollars every year.
“A 19 cent difference to the average driver in the northwestern part – the three counties, we’re talking about 240,000 vehicles – is almost $100 a year,” he said, “for a total of a $23 million a year premium that Northwesterners are paying every year.”
These Northwestern gas prices do come in line with prices in other parts of the state, Corren said, but only occasionally.
“The time the prices are the same is when people like U.S. Senator [Bernie] Sanders are taking on this issue and raising it in the public and raising it in the press,” Corren said, “and when that happens, magically, prices can be equalized between the northwest of Vermont, the rest of Vermont and even the United States.”
But most of the time, Corren said, that isn’t the case. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found, based on data ending in 2012, that customers in northwestern Vermont were consistently paying more than the state and national averages.
“Burlington was higher than the statewide average – not just the U.S. but the statewide average – 72 percent of the time,” he said. “St. Albans prices exceeded both the U.S. and statewide average 90 percent of the time.”