Is the Gas Prices Debate About Economics or Politics?
In this week's issue of Seven Days I wrote about Skip Vallee, the CEO of RL Vallee Inc. — one of Vermont's largest gas station chains. In the latest twist in the unfolding story about high gas prices in Vermont, Vallee purchased a former filing station in Plainfield, only to put it back on the market with restrictions on the deed that would forbid the property from being used as a gas station, convenience store or grocery store.
Some residents in Plainfield are crying foul, saying Vallee is just squashing potential competition for his other gas station up the road — and making it harder to attract a new owner in the process. Ask Vallee, and he'll tell you it's just business — a creative move to protect his company.
The back story — to cut to the chase — is that ever since U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took up the drumbeat on higher-than-average gas prices in northwestern Vermont in early July, Vallee and some of his colleagues have faced tough scrutiny for their pricing policies. Sanders says the Burlington area has a "non-competitive market" in which a few companies, RL Vallee included, set the prices. Vallee contends his business is competitive in every market in which it operates.
In the political undercurrents that pit Sanders against noted GOP player "Gasoline" Vallee, there's been some inevitable sniping back and forth. Sanders' office last week pushed out a press release that included information from superstore Costco saying that its Colchester warehouse, if allowed to build a gas station, would have offered gas at prices 19 cents lower than nearby competitors. (Vallee and another gas station owner are attempting to block the Costco gas station on largely environmental grounds.) From Sanders' press release:
“We applaud your efforts to promote competition in the gasoline business in northern Vermont, which will lead to more rational and competitive pricing for your constituents and our members,” [Costco Executive Vice President Joe Portera] told Sanders.
Vallee's detractors are quick to point out the irony in the noted Republican's tactics of choice: Not only is he supposedly stifling competition, but he's using environmental regulations to do so.
“What Skip Vallee and his friends are supposed to believe in is the value of competition,” Sanders told me on Monday morning. He said he's not for or against Costco, but also noted that RL Vallee "isn't exactly a mom and pop" operation.
Vallee can give as good as he gets: “With Costco, I am glad Bernie has finally found a multinational he likes," he quipped in an email to Seven Days.
You can read the whole story (including more details about Vallee's power play in Plainfield) here.
Illustration by Michael Tonn.