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Sanders convenes hearing on Burlington-area gas prices


Joseph Choquette III of the Vermont Petroleum Association was on the hot seat Monday afternoon as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pressed him to explain high gas prices in the Burlington area at a Senate field hearing at City Hall.


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Choquette replied.In his opening remarks at the hearing, Choquette pointed out that Vermont?s annual gasoline sales of 329 million gallons is the lowest in the lower 48 United States, and second only to Alaska among all of the states.?This is a small market served by as many as five terminals located in four states and two counties,? Choquette said?It is a complex market with many challenges: the distance to refineries, high real estate costs, strict environmental regulations and high taxes.?Sanders remained unconvinced that the factors Choquette raised explained Vermont?s high gas pricesHe said he had driven July 7 on U.S7 from Burlington through Middlebury and noticed the price of a gallon of gas at a Maplefields in Middlebury was $3.35The same gallon of gas at a Maplefields in Burlington was $3.59.?Explain the 24 cent differential,? Sanders said to Choquette.Choquette replied that each location ?behaves as an individual market,? and for whatever reason, the players in the Burlington market, including consumers themselves, have not been as aggressive as in Middlebury.In an interview with the Burlington Free Press after the hearing, Choquette said there is ?no single explanation? for variations in gas pricesBut he pointed out that on GasBuddy.com, a popular website that tracks gasoline prices nationwide, there was a 24-cent difference Monday in the lowest and highest prices of gas in the Burlington area.(Page 2 of 2)?My point was, there?s a pretty big difference (in price) in the Burlington area, and if people would shop for the lowest price, the price would come down,? Choquette said?But they don?tThey go to the Mobil station or the Shell station or the station on the way to the office.?Sanders rejected Choquette?s comment as ?absurd.??The bottom line is, on average, in Burlington, Chittenden County, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, prices have been substantially higher, and there is no rational economic reason for that, period, end of discussion,? Sanders said in an interview when told of Choquette?s remark?It may be that people in northwest Vermont are really terribly anxious to pay far more for gas than the rest of the stateI kind of think not.?Sanders said he believed Monday?s hearing ?proved the basic premise we?ve been operating under: that the only reason I can see why gas prices have for the last number of years been significantly higher here in northwest Vermont is because there has not been the kind of vigorous price competition our communities are entitled to.?Sanders began his campaign to draw attention to gas prices in Vermont at the beginning of July, when data from the New Jersey-based Oil Price Information Service showed that the gross profit margins for retail unleaded gasoline were higher in the Burlington area than anywhere in the Northeast.Ben Brockwell, director of data at the service, testified at Monday?s hearing that he was not personally aware that Burlington?s gas prices were unusually high until Sanders asked him to look into the situation.?It was apparent to me that your market for a long time has been a great market in terms of (gross profit) margins,? Brockwell said?I did not have a reasonable explanation as an expert in the field why prices would be that much higher.?Sanders has called for an investigation of Vermont gas prices by the Federal Trade Commission but said Monday he could provide no update on the status of that request.Rob Leuck, vice president for Costco responsible for 20 locations in the Northeast, also testified at Monday?s hearing, saying his company has been trying for more than four years to get approval for a Costco gas station in Colchester, ?but we have faced opposition from competitors.?Those competitors have included gas distributors R.LVallee Incand Timberlake Associates, who contend a Costco gas station would violate the state?s development-review law on wetlands protection, traffic, aesthetics and moreA related hearing began last Wednesday, and it could take several weeks or longer before the commission makes a decision.?We will not be deterred and will continue to try to obtain approval so we can provide this important core service to our Vermont members,? 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