Gas bills up for debate as prices rise
As gasoline prices creep above $3 a gallon again, lawmakers head into the critical part of the legislative session with two key measures still alive aimed at helping consumers at the pump.
One measure would provide full funding for the Public Utilities Commission to carry out data collection and reporting of oil industry pricing practices. The other would reinstate a general excise tax exemption for fuel blended with ethanol.
Both measures are being taken into conference committee, where House and Senate lawmakers work out differences in their respective versions of legislation.
The conference hearings come as Hawaii's statewide average for gasoline has topped $3 a gallon for the first time since mid-October.
"I believe the passage of this legislation would be not only timely, but important in promoting the interests of consumers," said Senate Energy Chairman Ron Menor (D, Mililani).
The statewide average for regular self-serve unleaded was $3.06 a gallon yesterday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report.
While Hawaii's fuel prices have led the nation for much of the past two years, they currently are fifth highest, behind California ($3.33), Washington, Oregon and Nevada. The national average is $2.86, up a dime from a week ago.
Gas prices have climbed along with crude oil prices, which rose last week after problems at several U.S. refineries and a decrease in U.S. gasoline stockpiles. Some refineries that had shifted production to heating oil for the winter months are expected to resume gasoline production this week.
Critics of oil companies in Hawaii have long contended that the industry, controlled by two refiners, sets prices high to maximize profits. Oil companies argue that high taxes, barriers to competition and Hawaii's remote location keep costs high.
Lawmakers are trying to shine more light on the industry's pricing practices.
Still alive is Senate Bill 990, which clarifies and tightens reporting requirements for the petroleum industry. The so-called transparency measure was passed in conjunction with last year's repeal of wholesale gasoline price caps as a means of letting the public see what goes into the cost of gasoline.
Menor's committee is holding an informational briefing today to see what strides, if any, the Public Utilities Commission has made in implementing the transparency requirements passed last year.
The PUC has said it is unable to carry out the mandate because lawmakers did not provide funding.
Although no specific amount is included in SB 990, leaders in both chambers say it is a priority. Estimates for what is needed have ranged from $300,000 to $1.2 million.
"I think we are on the same page," said House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell (D, Manoa). "We want to make sure there's sufficient funds."
The other measure, House Bill 1757, would reinstate a general excise tax exemption for fuels blended with ethanol. The exemption, estimated between 10 and 13 cents a gallon, expired Jan. 1.
Some lawmakers want assurances that the savings dealers realize from the exemption would be passed on to consumers.
"Transparency should show us if the savings are being passed on or not," Caldwell said. "In a market system, there's no guarantee that will happen."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.