Within two days, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Trade Commission issued contradictory rulings on whether gasoline station operators can charge extra for honoring credit cards.
On Tuesday the Department of Energy announced that, effective yesterday, ". . .a [gasoline] retailer has discretion whether or not to honor credit cards . . . [and] is not prohibited by the price rules from imposing a charge for honoring credit cards."
As soon as the rule went into effect, Federal Trade Commisson officials begin getting telephone calls from state officials around the country asking whether 25-cent surcharges -- already showing up at stations -- violated the Truth in Lending Act.
Yesterday afternoon, the FTC issues a statement saying, "Contrary to recent press reports, gasoline stations are prohibited from charging extra amounts for honoring credit cards, the staff of the FTC advised.
"The Truth in Lending Act provides that stations accepting credit may not impose a surcharge on a person using a credit card instead of paying cash."
Almost immediately, the energy department dispatched a lawyer from its general counsel's office to meet with FTC officials to resolve the conflict.
The energy department lawyer, Judith Ittig, initially denied -- as did FTC public affair spokesman Frank Pollack -- that the two rules conflicted.
"We were writing this . . . [rule] with specific reference to DOE rules," Ittig said. "We are not familiar with all the regulations and statues of the orther agencies."
Ittig would not say whether she though a gasoline dealer might reasonably assume from reading the energy department rule that he was allowed to charge extra for accepting credit cards.
"I would prefer not to answer that question. I don't know how to answer that question," she said, adding, "I am not speaking for myself and I am not speaking for the general counsel.