Gas pricing law called stalled
Weekly data reports from the PUC so far have been of little use, a key legislator says
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A key lawmaker says Hawaii's gasoline pricing transparency law is not working as the Legislature intended.
Senate Energy Chairman Ron Menor says more specific information needs to be reported for consumers to get a better idea of how gasoline prices are set in the islands.
The Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the Petroleum Industry Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting program, says the agency is doing its best to analyze a high volume of information while also protecting the confidentiality of companies involved in the oil industry.
Meanwhile, Hawaii's average price at the pump has once again climbed to among the highest in the country.
Friday's statewide average of $3.42 a gallon for regular unleaded -- 33 cents above the national average -- was tied with California's as the nation's priciest.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Gas prices were displayed yesterday at the Tesoro station on South King and Cooke streets in Honolulu.
As Hawaii gasoline prices again climb to among the highest in the country, a new law aimed at helping island consumers understand how fuel prices are set is not working as intended, a key lawmaker says.
Under the law, the Public Utilities Commission is required to post weekly reports compiled from data submitted by oil companies, dealers, jobbers and others who participate in the state's oil industry.
But Senate Energy Chairman Ron Menor, who helped write the law aimed at providing more transparency in oil industry pricing, says the reports have been of little use.
"I don't think that the implementation of the law by the PUC is providing the kind of transparency that we need to be able to determine all of the factors that are contributing to Hawaii's high gas prices," said Menor (D, Mililani). "I think consumers are entitled to have more specific information regarding the oil companies' pricing practices."
Oil industry participants are required to report on a variety of operational factors, such as the volume of fuel imported and exported, the costs of the fuel at various points in the supply chain and their weekly gross margins. Members also must report data for as many as 18 different types of products, ranging from conventional gasoline and diesel to jet fuel, kerosene and propane.
It is up to the PUC to analyze the data and determine what figures can be made public without giving up confidential, competitive information.
"The commission is doing its best to report on data that can be publicly disclosed, given the enormous amount of confidential information that we work with every week and the short time frame we have to publish, under the law," Lisa Kikuta, the PUC's chief researcher, said via e-mail.
The Petroleum Industry Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting program was passed in 2006 as part of the law that rescinded the state's one-of-a-kind wholesale price caps, and lawmakers provided full funding for the program last session.
Reports, which have been posted every week since Sept. 5, show figures including wholesale prices for regular gasoline during the reporting period, but the prices do not necessarily reflect what a gas station paid wholesale before selling it at the pump.
Critics say the wholesale averages are misleading because they include transactions for products that trade at different costs, such as conventional regular unleaded, regular gasoline blended with 10 percent ethanol and the lower-octane stock that is used to make the 10 percent blend.
Retail prices for various products also are listed, but do not include transactions from gas stations that sell fuel to the public.
Figures are broken down for eight geographic regions, but not all information is published for competitive reasons. For example, because there are only two oil refiners in the state, releasing the total amount of crude oil inventory for both refiners would allow each competitor to calculate the other's stock.
In addition to the weekly reports, Kikuta said a consultant is assisting the commission with "examination and assessment" of the data to compile a more detailed report for next year's Legislature.
"An in-depth analysis of the industry drawn from the reported data will be a part of the report to be submitted to the Legislature," she said.
Menor said he would wait for the report before deciding whether to call the PUC before his committee for an informational briefing on how the law has been implemented.
Meanwhile, Hawaii's gas prices have climbed to among the highest in the country.
The statewide average for regular, self-serve unleaded on Friday was $3.42 a gallon, tied with California's for the highest in the country, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report. New York was next at $3.28, while the national average was $3.09.
Since the first week of October, the national average has risen about 31 cents a gallon as crude oil has traded at record highs approaching $100 a barrel. Hawaii's average prices have increased about 20 cents over that same time, following a historic pattern of mimicking mainland trends with a few weeks of lag time.
Nationally, prices rose sharply from mid-October until last week, but have fallen 2.6 cents since, countering predictions that gas prices were destined to add another 10 to 15 cents a gallon to catch up with skyrocketing crude prices. Analysts now say gas prices are likely to hold steady or even slide a little unless oil rises beyond $100 a barrel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.