California has the second-highest fuel prices in the nation, but taxes aren’t solely to blame for rising gasoline costs. For the past few years, Californians have been paying a “mystery surcharge” on gas that amounts to about 20-plus cents a gallon—a combined $17 billion since 2015—and lawmakers want to get to the bottom of it.
Nineteen Democrats, including two South Bay legislators, sent a letter this week to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra asking him to investigate the inexplicable surcharge, which came to light in a 2017 report ordered by the California Energy Commission.
In the letter, Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and their colleagues note that the surcharge hovered around 2 cents a gallon from 2000 to 2014 but spiked in 2015 following a refinery fire in Torrance. Last year, the charge soared to about 24 cents per gallon.
University of California, Berkeley, professor Severin Borenstein chaired the committee that authored the report, which found that even accounting for the state’s gas tax and the cost of complying with greenhouse gas reduction targets failed to explain that 24 cents to the gallon charge. Since the Southern California refinery blaze, which happened a few months after Borenstein and his team began work on the report, he notes that prices have “exhibited a continuous and unexplained differential to the rest of the country.”
Authors of the report said they lacked the authority to demand data from private companies that could shed light on the matter, so they urged state policymakers to commit resources for further analysis.
More than a year later, legislators are acting on that advice.
“The high cost of gas in California and a mysterious charge are not new concerns to legislators or consumers,” Beall said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, we have not had the ability to force oil companies to provide answers to the questions we in the legislature were asking. Requesting investigation is the logical next step in getting to the bottom of what is really driving higher prices at the pump for Californians.”