Revision urged for study of gas costs
State officials want information that oil firms keep private
While gasoline prices surge across the country, leading some analysts to predict $4-a-gallon fuel by spring, Hawaii lawmakers continue trying to get a better idea into what goes into the state's pump prices.
Hawaii's prices are closer to $4 than any other state, registering yesterday at $3.54 a gallon. That is 15 cents higher than California and 19 cents above Washington, the next-highest states in the daily nationwide survey of prices compiled by AAA.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are still trying to figure out why.
A Senate panel advanced a proposal yesterday that would clarify the Petroleum Industry Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting program, launched last year as a means of learning what goes into the cost of fuel in the islands.
The Public Utilities Commission has been charged since late August with collecting volumes of information from the oil industry and publishing whatever information it can without releasing confidential trade information. Weekly reports have been criticized as misleading for including, and excluding, certain price information that could potentially distort the averages.
Senate Bill 2630 seeks to get more specific information from the oil industry participants, including how much they pay for crude oil and how much they sell it at wholesale.
"I think there's been some concerns about the lack of some information coming forward to help us fully understand what's going on with respect to the relationship between petroleum companies and the cost of fuel here," said Senate Consumer Protection Chairman Russell Kokubun (D, Hilo-Naalehu), whose committee advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote.
Critics of Big Oil have long alleged that Hawaii's gas prices are set artificially high by oil companies seeking to maximize profits in a small market. Industry officials say Hawaii's prices are the result of higher taxes and a market structure that prevents other competitors from coming to the islands.
Although Hawaii's gas prices are at their highest this year, they have not fluctuated as much or climbed as rapidly as the nationwide average, which has shot up 20 cents in the last two weeks alone.
The idea behind the reporting program was to give consumers information that would let them determine whether they think gasoline is priced fairly in Hawaii. If consumers felt cheated, they could then bring pressure on public officials to take action.
Asked whether he felt the program was working, PUC Chairman Carlito Caliboso replied, "It's getting there. We're slowly getting it to work better and better and get more and more information."
Caliboso noted that oil companies have fought in the past to keep private the information that lawmakers are requesting, and likely would do so again as the bill advances.
Oil company representatives did not attend yesterday's hearing. Aloha Petroleum and the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade group, submitted testimony opposing the bill, citing concerns over confidentiality.