As gas stations raise prices in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, there have been numerous accusations of price gouging. Especially on social media, some are quick to conclude price gouging if they see gasoline prices go up by 10 or 20 cents per gallon over the course of a couple of days.
At the same time, there are widespread reports of gasoline hoarding, even as reports of shortages were spreading across Texas. The photo above, which has been widely circulated on social media, shows a motorist in Texas putting gasoline in two plastic trash cans in the back of his pickup (which, to be clear, is extremely dangerous). I tracked down the photographer — Miguel Jimenez — to obtain permission to use the photo. He confirmed this incident took place at the gas station located next to his Nomad Bar in Austin.
These issues — gouging, hoarding, and shortages — are all interrelated, and they demonstrate why the issue of price gouging isn’t always as simple it seems.
Here are the options that a gas station may face. If a service station’s gasoline inventories are depleting at a faster than normal pace (for example, deliveries are delayed), they have three choices. One, they can do nothing and just hope they don’t run out of fuel. Two, they can raise prices to slow down demand (especially from those who are hoarding gasoline) and to provide an incentive for more supplies to flow into the region. Or three, they can ration gasoline.
There are disadvantages of each approach.
In most cases, a station will opt to raise prices. This, effectively, is rationing by price. It provides a disincentive against hoarding while stretching gasoline supplies for those who really need it.
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