Is it just me, or is there something a little suspicious about gasoline prices in some locations in southern Maine. Many people in the area have raised concerns about a worrisome trend in these prices, and with good reason.

In particular, there appears to be something curious, dare I say even troublesome, about gas prices along the stretch of Route 302 in Windham. The prices per gallon for regular grade gas on this section of road are all within a few of cents. Hmmm, is that a coincidence? Yet when traveling the same Route 302 a short distance to Westbrook, the prices drop quickly and significantly. Hmm again.

For example, the Windham Route 302 prices at the time of this writing ranged from $3.51 to $3.53 – a mere 2 cents difference. Yet just a few miles down the road, the price was 10 cents less per gallon. And close by at another Westbrook station, the price was 12 to 14 cents cheaper. Why are the prices on the Windham part of 302 always so high and nearly the same?

A contrasting example can be found in the city of Biddeford, where gas prices vary considerably. A Shell station recently was selling at $3.36 per gallon, and in the same city a Citgo station was charging $3.49 per gallon. One might be curious as to why there would be a 13 cent difference in the same city and how the higher priced station could survive, but at least there appears to be isolated pricing in that community.

Scarborough also had a wide range of prices, from $3.39 at a Mobile station to a Gulf station selling at $3.51. Stations checked in Freeport were selling at a wide range of prices and the same in Fryeburg, as well.

I should mention that there is an eight-10 day delay from the time I write this column to the time of publication so prices could easily change by the time you read this, but the price trends have been quite consistent.

So, back to the dubious gas prices found on Route 302 in Windham that mysteriously start increasing once you cross the town line. These gas stations are selling at almost the same higher price, even though three out of four of the stations are supplied by different gasoline companies. Hmm.

Maine has antitrust laws that are designed to protect and encourage open competition among businesses. These special consumer protection laws prohibit, among other things, conspiring to fix prices, abusing monopoly powers, and engaging in anticompetitive activities.

Let me be perfectly clear, I have no evidence nor am I suggesting that there are violations of antitrust laws regarding my references in this column, but I am raising questions as to why some gas stations seem to be in lock-step regarding prices they charge in a high tourist-traveled, condensed geographical area.

A few years ago, a report was prepared for the attorneys general of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont entitled, “Report on Petroleum Products Markets in the Northeast.” The report explained that some retail gas stations are owned and operated directly by oil/gas refiners that supply their own gas to stations. In general, when stations are directly supplied by a refiner, the refiner has more influence over the wholesale price the station pays.

In other words, the price setting may be out of the control of the workers you see at the local station every day, so caution is advised before jumping to conclusions as to who is making the pricing decisions.

Having said that, someone is making the decision about prices and it may be as simple as refiners instructing local station managers to drive the Windham section of Route 302 each day to keep track of each other. Refiners or station owners calling each other directly to arrange prices would be a violation of the antitrust laws, so certainly that wouldn’t be what’s happening in this case – right?

Today, there are more than 167,000 gas stations in the United States. For the protection of the consumer, regulations and guidelines are critical, however just as important is the need for the public to report any pricing irregularities.

Concerns can be reported to the Consumer Protection Division in the Maine Attorney General’s Office by email: [email protected], or call 800-436-2131.

All of these questions and curious circumstances may have logical explanations. If that’s the case it would be appropriate for whoever is responsible for price setting at these Route 302 stations in Windham to step forward and explain to the public why their prices are consistently higher and nearly the same.

And if they don’t provide acceptable and reasonable explanations … hmm.

Bill Diamond of Windham served as District 12’s senator from 2004-2012, and is also a former Maine secretary of state.


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