Although South Carolinians are generally advised to travel less during the coronavirus outbreak, drivers in parts of the state are still noticing starkly different prices for gas.
An analysis of prices reported by AAA shows disparities of up to $0.37 per gallon between Hilton Head Island and Columbia. Gas prices in South Carolina are about $0.20 cheaper than the national average, which has fallen in recent weeks due to lower demand and international tension over crude oil prices.
“Why are we in this county paying $2 a gallon for fuel when it is as low as $1.15 in Columbia,” one reader wrote to the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette newspapers. “This is so wrong and borderline criminal.”
While recent prices in Columbia aren’t quite that low, drivers in the Hilton Head and Bluffton area are almost sure to pay more than if they were filling up in the upstate.
Here’s where gas prices are highest and lowest in the state (and why):
Where is gas the cheapest?
AAA gas price tracking uses county averages to compare daily prices. An interactive map is available at the travel membership organization’s website. AAA gas price data is reported by the Oil Price Information Service, its website says.
Cherokee County, located in the northwest corner of South Carolina bordering North Carolina, reported the cheapest gas Saturday at an average of $1.48 a gallon.
South Carolina’s price map gets redder in all the coastal counties – signaling higher prices.
The most expensive gas in the state on Saturday was in Clarendon County at an average of $1.99 per gallon.
The landlocked county was just a hair higher than coastal Beaufort County, which reported an average of $1.98 per gallon.
How much more expensive is gas in 2020?
An analysis of four metropolitan areas’ average gas prices show that drivers in some areas are paying more compared to other counties this year than they were at the same time last year.
Hilton Head Island and Bluffton appear to be home of some of the biggest changes.
Gas cost an average of $2.50 per gallon in the Hilton Head/ Bluffton metropolitan area in 2019, AAA reported. That was $0.03 per gallon higher than Columbia, $0.07 higher than Myrtle Beach and $0.05 higher than Rock Hill, AAA data shows. Although prices were much higher, they appeared more stable across the state.
On Saturday, drivers in the Hilton Head/ Bluffton area were paying an average of $1.97 per gallon.
That is $0.37 higher than in Columbia, $0.25 higher than in Myrtle Beach and $0.26 higher than in Rock Hill, according to AAA data.
If you’re counting quarters, that’s a significant difference.
Factors impacting gas prices
Market experts have puzzled over why gas prices have changed during the state of emergency declared in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“When a natural disaster hits, the immediate effect can be two-fold. In such situations, it’s not unusual that the demand for certain products increase. For example, if everyone is trying to leave an area, the demand for gas may rise,” according to an April 1 article from the Harvard Business School.
But the suggestion for this emergency is the opposite of the hurricane response South Carolina is all too familiar with: public health officials and state leaders recommend staying home, not running for higher ground.
The market changes associated with the coronavirus have sent nationwide average gas prices down below $2 per gallon for the first time since 2016, according to automotive news and reviews website Roadshow.
The price drop is attributed to two factors: a lower demand for fuel due to coronavirus-related orders to stay at home and an ongoing crude oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
The national average price Saturday is $1.94 per gallon, while South Carolina’s is $1.71.
Under normal circumstances, gas price differences between counties are due to local taxes, fuel blends, potential profit margins and even the cost of real estate in an area, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Is it price gouging?
While many are quick to cry “price gouging” when they see different prices around a state, there’s no rule for what qualifies as price gouging, the Harvard Business article said.
Generally, price gouging is defined as when companies raise prices to unfair levels. The practice is more frequent during natural disasters, when some companies try to capitalize on high demand.
But South Carolina’s price gouging laws, which went into effect March 13 along with the national state of emergency, do little to define the practice.
It simply says it’s unlawful to “rent or sell or offer to rent or sell a commodity at an unconscionable price.”
Other states, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, define price gouging in state laws as a price increase of 10% or 20%, respectively, for commodities during emergencies, the National Law Review reported.
If you suspect price gouging on any item in South Carolina, you can report it to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office for investigation.
Wilson’s office suggests including the following information in your report:
The time, place, address and name of the business
The price you paid
Any prices at similar businesses nearby.
Photos that identify the business and the price
Your name and contact information
Reports can be sent to [email protected]cag.gov or given by phone at (803) 737-3953.