WHILE CONGRESS AND the administration ponder gasoline policies, a government version of "The Price Is Wrong" has wound up tagging more than 360 service stations in Maryland with findings that they have been overcharging at the pumps. After fanning out to about 550 stations around the state, the U.S. Department of Energy's investigators came up with overcharges ranging from less than a penny to as much as 11 cents a gallon above what is allowed by federal regulations.
Not only has the department published a list of stations and overcharges, but it has ordered more than 160 of these stations to roll back their prices until their shares of a total of $50,000 have been refunded to the motoring public. Warning letters have been sent to about 200 more stations charging that they had overpriced gas by smaller amounts, mostly tenths of a cent. In all, the stations cited amount to about 11 percent of the state total -- not an insignificant number, though not the 20 percent that auditors from the Maryland comptroller's office had come up with after an earlier survey of nearly every station in the state.
Though all these findings happen to come from Maryland, this isn't a case of state officials looking away from corruption. On the contrary, it was the state's exhaustive survey and cooperation with federal officials that led to the citations and rollbacks. It's unlikely that such an effective enforcement could be conducted throughout the country, but the example set is a good one. In addition to this kind of auditing, better disclosure of prices at stations would at least let the public know more than it does today about where the money is going. Prices should be clearly visible from the road, and -- just as they used to be -- breakdowns of how much of the pump price is going to dealers, federal and state governments and others should be displayed. These disclosures, plus vigilance and reporting by motorists of prices out of line, would assist not only the government and consumers, but honest retail gasoline dealers hard-pressed by the rising costs of doing business.