AUSTIN ANSWERED: Your gas pump queries as Harvey gouging complaints near 3,000

We’re all relieved to see some normalcy return to Austin-area gas stations this week, just as the experts predicted once more refineries came online and drivers calmed down.

Even so, last week’s panic at the pumps sparked some interesting questions from Austin Answered readers about the laws around gouging and gas supplies. We checked with authorities and here’s what we learned:

How many gouging complaints has Texas received? The Texas attorney general’s office has logged 2,947 complaints about scams, fraud and price gouging as of late Wednesday. Most of them involved complaints about overpriced bottle water, fuel, groceries and shelter.

The attorney general’s office reviews each complaint and decides which ones merit further investigation. So far, investigative work has begun on nine cases and more are likely, spokeswoman Kayleigh Lovvorn said.

“In a few specific cases, we’ve seen $3.50 for gas in Houston, $8.50 for bottles of water and $99 case of water complaints,” as well as a Houston convenience store that was allegedly charging $20 per gallon of gas, Lovvorn said.

At what point does the state consider rising prices to be gouging? Texas law specifically bars retailers from jacking up the prices on gas, food, medicine or other necessities when a state-declared emergency is in effect — as it’s been since Aug. 23, when Texas officials started nervously eyeing Harvey in the Gulf of Mexico. But the law doesn’t define what “an exorbitant or excessive price” is.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, in an Aug. 31 radio interview with Glenn Beck, said some upticks in gas prices were expected with Harvey, considering the storm’s closure of some oil refineries. Paxton suggested the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity also applies to gouging: “I know it when I see it.”

“When I see gas prices at $20 a gallon, I know it’s price gouging. When I saw water at $100 a case, I know it’s price gouging,” Paxton told Beck. “When I see gas at $2.57, it’s probably not price gouging.”

Is there any law against hoarding gas? Nothing prohibits people from stocking up on supplies, whether it’s fuel, water or food. In fact, some economists have argued that price-gouging laws exacerbate the problem: If stores could raise their prices in the face of peak demand, people would be encouraged to buy only what they need, and suppliers would be incentivized to redirect their goods to those high-demand areas.

Even if you find a station stocked with reasonably priced gas, though, it’s a terrible idea to fill up giant plastic trash cans like this guy. Apart from your gas tank, gasoline should only go in approved red gas cans that have an Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) stamp on them, the Travis County Fire Marshal said. Among other things, these approved cans have the necessary ventilation and child-safety features needed when flammable chemicals are involved.

Under Texas law, someone who improperly handles flammable liquids can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor and a fine of up to $100.

GET UP TO SPEED: Check out other Austin Answered stories arising from readers’ questions

• Who is Maufrais, and why is the name written on Austin sidewalks?

• Where do the Congress Avenue Bridge bats go at night?

• Why don’t Austin police cite bicyclists?

• Why did Austin close off right-turn lane in front of Yeti?

• Are algae blooms bad for your health?

• Why can’t you swim in Lady Bird Lake?

• Quick answers to 11 of your questions and 8 more

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