Gasoline Price Increases: Federal and State Authority to Limit 'Price Gouging' [August 23, 2011] [open pdf - 199KB]
"Fluctuations in gasoline prices in recent years have renewed focus on the role of the government in discouraging 'price gouging,' a term commonly used to refer to sellers inflating prices to 'unfair' levels in order to take advantage of certain circumstances causing a decrease in supply, including emergencies. There have been legislative efforts to create a federal law addressing gasoline price gouging, including bills that would bar certain commercial practices as well as legislation that mandated the study of pricing of gasoline in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While the federal government has not enacted legislation aimed specifically at addressing price gouging for gasoline, a majority of states have enacted statutes to curtail price gouging for certain critical goods and services, including fuel, during emergencies. Some of these statutes attempt to address price gouging by barring pricing during emergencies that is considered to be 'unconscionable' or 'excessive' or otherwise is in violation of a subjective standard. Other statutes place a hard cap on prices during periods of emergency based on percentage increases from prices charged for the good or service in question prior to the emergency. […] Although there is no federal law aimed specifically at price gouging, federal antitrust laws do forbid various types of anticompetitive business practices. For example, Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits unreasonable restraints of trade. It is possible that if a group of gasoline retailers or other retailers collaborated to set prices unreasonably high during an emergency, this 'price gouging' could be a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. In addition, while not necessarily tied to retail price gouging, federal statutes addressing monopolies and vertical integration may play a role in evaluating retail gasoline price changes."
CRS Report for Congress, RS22236