We'd rather have a real person to blame for the fact that North Carolina has the most expensive gas in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.
Hurricane Ike caused pipeline supply shortages here that have not quite gone away. Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were hurt hard because of their unusually heavy reliance on Gulf of Mexico refineries.
But a distant hurricane does not make a satisfying scapegoat for high gas prices. There were two distinct streams of invective in comments filed on my voice mail and in my e-mailbox, and -- read 'em yourself, and wince! -- posted online with my recent newspaper story and blog post.
Some readers blame the people who sell gas. Others blame the people who tax it.
Culprit #1: Greedy gougers.
Tim Colton saw regular selling for $3.959 at BP in Carrboro and for $3.299 at Sheetz in Mebane, 16 miles away. "The only reasonable explanation is price manipulation."
Joe Nix said:
Distributors charge more for gas in the Triangle simply because they can get away with it. I do not believe that their cost is so much higher than that in Burlington, Mebane or Greensboro to justify the price differences.
Edward Garrison said: "How can gas be so divergent in price unless Raleigh dealers are gently gouging us."
J&G Park said: "Why doesn't the N&O do a REAL story about gouging?"
Which brings me to the friendly note Janet Layko added, after she expressed her own gas price gripe: "Glad to see you didn't get cut like so many others on the N&O."
Gee whiz, Janet, that made me glad, too -- until I read Tom Swearingen's different take on the same N&O story:
Maybe the News and Observer needs to rethink layoffs! You did everyone a disservice on why NC gas is so expensive. ... No wonder the N&O is foundering. They can't get a story straight when it hits them in the face.
This brings us to Culprit #2: Tax-happy politicians.
Swearingen blames high taxes that are part of the cost of every gallon. "The answer is your liberal friends at the state legislature. They tax gas to death in this state."
Lela Bennett said she recently heard that ours is the nation's highest gas tax, and "not only that, it automatically goes up every year no matter what." Jimmy Stroud called to leave a similar message.
So what's the story?
Is it taxers? Of course taxes add to the cost of gas. But they don't explain why gas is so much more expensive here than across the country. Our tax rate has not changed in the past month.
North Carolina's combined state-federal gas tax of 48.6 cents may seem steep, and maybe it truly is. But it also is nearly identical to the national average gas tax, according to the American Petroleum Institute: 48.4 cents. Our gas tax is not the nation's worst, Lela, and it has been capped to keep it from increasing every year.
California's gas tax is 18.5 cents HIGHER than ours, but its average gas price is 19.4 cents LOWER. than ours. Virginia's tax is 10.2 cents lower than ours, but its price is 34.7 cents lower.
Is it gougers? That's easy to suspect but hard to prove. I'll be interested to see what Attorney General Roy Cooper finds out after issuing subpoenas for the price records of a few stations that were accused of overcharging for gas after Ike shut down the Gulf refineries.
The Mebane area and Raleigh's South Saunders Street are examples of two places known for fierce price competition and usually relatively cheap gas. Why does gas usually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in other neighborhoods?
Whatever the reasons for the usual price variations, the situation has been exacerbated by the lingering inequities in supplies. With some distributors still rationing their supplies, their prices are more likely to be higher than they would be otherwise.
Are some North Carolina gas merchants greedy? Maybe. But are they the greediest in the land? Are they greedier now than they were a month ago? Nah.