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Berkeley, CA --- At a meeting of the state commission charged with investigating gas price manipulation, Consumer Watchdog delivered an analysis showing that since the end of May California’s largest oil refiners have engaged in unprecedented price manipulation to keep California gasoline prices artificially high using their leverage over prices at their branded stations. 

The tactics could violate both federal anti-trust laws and an agreement Tesoro struck with the California Attorney General. Consumer Watchdog called for the Attorney General to appoint an independent prosecutor.

Responding to industry insiders and using industry data, Consumer Watchdog’s analysis shows that over the last 16 years the price charged by California oil refiners to their branded stations averaged three cents more than the price they offered to unbranded, or independent, stations.   Branded stations must buy gas at whatever price a refiner sets. For the last two weeks, the average wholesale or “rack” price in Los Angeles that California oil refiners have charged branded stations has been 30 cents more per gallon than the price charged to unbranded stations, artificially inflating the gasoline price in the state. California Energy Commission data shows that a sustained 30 cents gap is unprecedented statewide.

Similar price gaps have been reported at racks across the state, including in the Bay Area.

Read the analysis here: http://consumerwatchdog.org/resources/wholesalegasolinemanipulaitonanalysis.pdf

“California oil refiners are using their market power over their branded stations to force gasoline prices to consumers at the pump to rise at all gas stations,” said Cody Rosenfield, co-author of the analysis.  “Just as supplies began coming in from outside California to moderate supply problems driven by unprecedented refinery outages, oil refiners began using their price leverage over their branded stations to keep gas prices artificially high.”

The market move appears to violate the Robinson-Patman Act –antitrust legislation written to protect businesses from arbitrary & unfair prices. It requires like and kind products to be offered at similar prices. 

In the case of Tesoro, the price difference charged to Arco stations appears to violate a deal made in 2013 with California Attorney General Kamala Harris when the company was allowed to purchase all of the Southern California ARCO stations from BP in 2013. In a letter describing the agreement, the Attorney General’s office stated, “Tesoro has agreed to maintain Arco’s status as a low cost fuel provider.” 

Read the letter: https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/attachments/press_releases/AG Letter to CEC %28Tesoro%29.pdf?

The California Energy Commission (CEC) receives this data and is supposed to verify Tesoro’s compliance.

The CEC has also formed the Petroleum Market Advisory Committee (PMAC) to monitor gas prices in the state and provide expert advice in case of market manipulation.

Consumer Watchdog will present the new evidence today at the PMAC Committee, which has not met since California’s unprecedented gas price spike began in February. The Committee is holding its hearing at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and is chaired by free market economist James Sweeney of Stanford, who has defended deregulation of California’s electricity market. He wrote "Although the public rhetoric places blame for the crisis on California deregulation, whether this deregulation was more than a minor influence is still unclear. The financial crisis, in contrast, was the direct result of California’s regulatory actions. It was not the result of deregulation but rather of overly stringent regulation."  (http://www.hoover.org/research/lights-out)

Severin Bornstein, a Chair of the Haas School, is a member of the Committee as well.

Consumer Watchdog said the venue was an unfortunate one. The Haas School has received millions of dollars in donations from major oil companies and their foundations, including Chevron, the BP Foundation, the Shell Foundation, and the Exxon Foundation.

The head of the Attorney General’s Anti-trust Section Kathleen Foote is also on the PMAC Committee. In a separate letter today, Consumer Watchdog called upon Harris to appoint an independent prosecutor into the oil refiners’ market misconduct.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/aglettergasmanipulation.pdf