Following Hurricane Harvey, gas prices spiked nationwide. There were a few reasons for it: refinery capacity was down, and demand—at least in parts of Texas both affected and unaffected by the storm—shot up as people, watching their neighbors fill up giant barrels of gasoline, began rushing to the pump to fill up their cars. All of that unfolded throughout September, but it doesn’t fully explain behavior from gas stations around Texas in the immediate wake of the storm. What does explain it is the simplest cause: price gouging.
According to the Dallas Morning News, 127 gas stations throughout the state are facing fines for price gouging. The Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s office sought out stations whose prices essentially doubled—all of the stations involved charged at least $3.99 a gallon for unleaded during the storm.
The attorney general’s office received around 5,500 complaints about businesses gouging customers during the Harvey disaster, including many in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Even in places far from where Harvey made landfall, Texans felt the effects of higher-priced gas. In September, the attorney general sued Bains Brothers, which has Texaco-branded gas stations in Carrollton, Richardson and Arlington. The gas stations allegedly displayed gas prices in the $3 to $4 range but charged up to $6.99 per gallon for regular unleaded gas.
During a declared state of disaster, businesses are banned from drastically overpricing necessities such as fuel, food and water. The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act lets the attorney general sue businesses for price gouging, for up to $20,000 per violation.
Those 5,500 complaints were well-documented; the Attorney General’s office said that many of them included photos of receipts, and captured not just gas stations, but also hotels, supermarkets, or more.
This wave of citations—which carry fines up to $20,000—is aimed at gas stations, but it’s not the first time the AG’s office has stepped in around Harvey. A Fort Worth-area hotel was sued by Paxton’s office in September (after losing its Best Western franchise amid the initial reports), and it’s likely that there will be more cases as the office continues to investigate those 5,500 complaints.
There was no shortage of examples of price gouging during the storm. On social media, many people shared receipts and photos of gouging across the state.
One Houston resident sent me a pic of water he saw being sold for *$42* at a nearby Best Buy. They were kind enough to offer $29 bottles too pic.twitter.com/8dKz3sJJM1
— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) August 29, 2017
— Mark Elliott (@markmobility) September 2, 2017
— Larry Collins (@LarryNBC5) August 31, 2017
All the gas in Dallas come from southeast Texas, this is the effect of Harvey pic.twitter.com/HXjf9MCq1g
— Josh Nzeakor (@JNzeakor) August 31, 2017
— ABC13 Houston (@abc13houston) August 25, 2017
The initial lawsuit by Paxton’s office against the hotel—along with two service stations in North Texas—surfaced in mid-September, and official action against businesses accused had been quiet since then. These 127 citations suggest that the AG’s office isn’t finished holding people who spiked the prices on essentials on their neighbors accountable.