Mayor asks AG's Office to investigate high gas prices in Farmington

Unprecedented difference opens between prices in Farmington and elsewhere in New Mexico

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • A AAA survey released July 28 shows that Farmington drivers were paying an average of $4.79 for a gallon of regular unleaded fuel on that date.
  • That was 6 cents cheaper than last week, but only 20 cents cheaper than the record price of $4.99 established on June 11.
  • Prices elsewhere in New Mexico have fallen dramatically since the middle of June.

FARMINGTON − Perturbed by what he describes as excessive prices, Mayor Nate Duckett has asked the New Mexico Attorney General's Office to investigate why the cost of gasoline in the Farmington area is so much higher than it is throughout the rest of the state.

Duckett pulled no punches in relating his conversation with officials from the AG's Office, explaining that he was so irritated he felt compelled to ask, "At what point do you guys consider this price gouging?"

Jerri Mares, the communications director for the AG's Office, confirmed July 29 that Duckett and Attorney General Hector Balderas had spoken about the issue.

"They're both concerned about it, and the attorney general has directed an inquiry into it," she said.

Citing figures from GasBuddy, a Boston-based tech company that monitors gas prices at tens of thousands of stations across America, Duckett maintained that, in some cases, there is a price difference of more than $1.20 per gallon between the price of fuel in Farmington and the price in Bernalillo, which is approximately 165 miles away.

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Figures reported in the AAA New Mexico Weekend Gas Watch, a weekly survey of gas prices throughout New Mexico and the region, reflect Duckett's contention. An analysis of those numbers by The Daily Times has revealed that gas prices in Farmington have climbed higher than any other location in the state this year while failing to decline recently at the same rate as New Mexico's other population centers, leaving an unprecedented price difference.

While gas prices have fallen sharply in many other parts of New Mexico since the second week in June, they remain near a record level in Farmington, according to figures from AAA New Mexico.

The AAA survey released July 28 shows that Farmington drivers were paying an average of $4.79 for a gallon of regular unleaded fuel on that date − 6 cents cheaper than last week, but only 20 cents cheaper than the record price of $4.99 established on June 11.

By contrast, prices elsewhere in New Mexico have fallen dramatically since the middle of June. Drivers in Albuquerque were paying the least on July 28 at $3.87 a gallon, which was 92 cents a gallon less than the average in Farmington. It also was 99 cents less than Albuquerque's record high price of $4.86 a gallon set on June 10 − a price reduction nearly five times greater than what Farmington drivers have seen.

Drivers in Las Cruces were paying $4.03 a gallon on July 28, while Santa Fe drivers were paying $4.05 a gallon − both slightly less than the statewide average of $4.07. The average price fell 20 cents in Las Cruces last week, 24 cents in Santa Fe and 19 cents across New Mexico − all considerably more than the 6-cent decline in Farmington.

If Farmington were a state, it would have the ninth-highest average gas price in the country, according to data compiled by AAA New Mexico.

Prices are so high in Farmington, in fact, that if the city were a state, it would have the ninth-highest average gas price in the country, according to figures listed in the AAA survey.

Of the 10 markets cited for comparison in the AAA survey (national, New Mexico, Albuquerque, Farmington, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada), Farmington has seen the largest one-year increase in gas prices at $1.50, although Nevada was a close second at $1.47. The national increase was $1.12, and the New Mexico difference was 98 cents.

Farmington also has the highest average gas price of any of those 10 markets, aside from Nevada, where the price on July 28 was $5.11.

All of that has led Duckett to vent his frustration in various directions. The mayor said that in addition to speaking to the attorney general, he has reached out to officials with many of the various oil companies and gasoline retailers who service the Farmington market to get some answers.

As of July 29, Duckett said, those conversations had yielded little in the way of concrete explanations for why the price discrepancy exists. If many instances, Duckett said, company officials had not even bothered to call him back.

Duckett noted that Farmington drivers historically have paid the highest gas prices in the state, but he said the difference that has set in over the past seven weeks is excessive. He cited GasBuddy figures from July 29 that showed prices at two Bernalillo stations − a Warrior Fuel location and a Speedway station − of $3.39 a gallon. That was $1.40 a gallon less than the AAA-cited average of $4.79 in Farmington on July 28.

Nate Duckett

"It's always been higher, but now it seems like it's out of sight," Duckett said, explaining that he has a responsibility as mayor to become an advocate for local gas consumers.

Not all stations are charging that much in Farmington. A quick, informal survey of gas prices in the city on July 29 showed prices running as low as $4.65, and there were anecdotal reports of prices running much cheaper than that in Kirtland. But there also was a station in Farmington charging $4.88 a gallon, illustrating that there is little uniformity between the prices stations in the city charge these days.

In the past, AAA officials have said Farmington is served by a different supply chain than most of the rest of the state, and that factor − along with its relatively remote location and differences in marketing costs – helps account for its higher gas prices. But the average price in Durango, Colorado, just north of San Juan County, was listed as $4.39 a gallon July 29, according to AAA − 40 cents cheaper than Farmington.

"How does that make any sense at all?" Duckett asked.

An examination of statewide gas prices in January 2021 by The Daily Times showed that Farmington drivers consistently had paid the highest prices of the state's four major markets since at least 2016, meaning higher prices in San Juan County are not a new development.

In comparing gas prices on the first day of each quarter of each year going back to Jan. 1, 2016 − a total of 21 price points − the data revealed that Farmington had the highest average price for gas 14 times and tied for the highest price once. Las Cruces had the highest price five times and tied for the highest price another time. In all but three instances, Albuquerque had the lowest price or tied for the lowest price.

Farmington's status as the gas price leader in New Mexico has only been solidified since then. Gas prices began to rise in December 2020 when the effects of the pandemic began to wane and demand for fuel started to increase.

With only a handful of exceptions, Farmington has posted the state's highest gas prices on a weekly basis since January 2021, although the price difference compared to the state's other large markets has widened considerably since the second week in June.

There seems to be little uniformity in gas prices between stations in the Farmington area, with the cost varying by nearly a quarter, depending on the location.

Mares, the communications director for the AG's Office, said the agency has received many complaints about alleged price gouging since the COVID-19 pandemic began, although most of them have concerned other products besides gasoline, most notably hand sanitizer. She said the agency has a process for investigating those complaints, including contacting the businesses that are the subject of the complaints and allowing them to respond.

The AG's Office often tries to mediate the dispute between the complainant and the business or businesses, she said, and hopes to resolve the issue that way. But if investigators find any merit to a complaint that a legal violation has occurred, the complaint would be forwarded to the agency's consumer protection division for further action, she said.

Mares said the AG's Office encourages consumers to come forward if they feel they have been treated unfairly, noting that that is how the agency is made aware of violations of state law.

Complaints can be filed with the agency by downloading, filling out and submitting a consumer and constituent complaint form, which can be found online at nmag.gov. An electronic complaint submission form also is available on the site. Call 505-490-4060 or 1-844-255-9210 for more information.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.