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Crazy gas prices driving German consumers mad

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

A price board at a petrol station in Berlin, Germany on March 30. The price for "super" at 1.71 euro per liter is approximately $8.56 a gallon.

MAINZ, Germany –  “Oh nein,” there is another traffic jam at my local gas station.

Normally, German drivers only encounter severe congestion on their famed autobahns, where traffic flow is often hampered there by the large number of construction sites regularly installed by the German government to keep its state-of-the-art highways "in order."

These days, though, it is not unusual for gas prices to change up to five times per day at German gas stations, a phenomenon which traffic experts refer to as the “yo-yo effect.” 

When prices are lowered, many inner-city gas stations in Germany see drivers pull up in hordes.

Given costs of up to 1.70 Euro (and more) per liter of unleaded fuel – the equivalent of $8.56 per gallon – it should come as no surprise that Germany's drivers have become bargain hunters. (One gallon is equal to 3.78 liters).

Critics say that the yo-yo phenomenon is fueled by the highly competitive market and dominance by leading suppliers in the German market, like Aral, Jet or Shell.

Retailers and consumers, who see a lowering of prices during lower-demand times and a hike during rush hours or school holidays, are increasingly calling for prices to be directed by supply and demand.

"When the prices are high in the morning during rush hour and then suddenly drop when most people are at work, our customers often get upset and complain heavily," said Ferdinand Raker, who has been running an independent gas station in the town of Molbergen since 1998.

Constantly changing prices
"On some days, we see a lowering or raising of the prices by up to 14 euro cents ($0.18) per liter," said Andreas Hoelzel from German automobile club ADAC in Munich. "We understand that there is a competitive market situation, but the extent of price fluctuation is just enormous."

It is all about a plethora of petrol pumps in Germany, representatives from the industry argue.

The cover of Germany's popular news weekly magazine Der Spiegel this week with the headline, "The Fuel Cartel – How Oil Firms Manipulate the Fuel Prices."

"This shows that we have a functioning business competition in the German petroleum market, which in comparison to other European countries has an above-average volume of gas stations with its nearly 14,700 outlets nationwide," said Karin Retzlaff from the Association of the German Petroleum Industry, known as MWV.

This argument, however, has neither satisfied the average driver nor officials from automobile clubs, who represent Germany's now grumpy motorists.

Reports about illegal price fixing among multinationals could not be proven in recent investigations by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, but experts and media reports are still accusing oil firms of implementing “methods of systematic confusion.“

On Monday, weekly “Der Spiegel” news magazine headlined its cover “The Fuel Cartel – How Oil Firms Manipulate the Fuel Prices” and argued in its seven-page analysis that the leading gas companies are using their power in the market to deliberately inflate fuel prices.

Creative thefts
Frustration over high fuel costs has also set off a high level of fuel thefts across the country, officials say.

According to police in Germany's most populous state, Northrhein-Westphalia, diesel thefts, for example, have increased over the course of the past year. (More than 40 percent of German cars are powered by diesel.) An internal survey, which listed all cases with diesel thefts above 100 liters, showed 111 cases in January and 83 in February in this local state alone.

The statistics indicate that criminals are mainly targeting fuel depots, heavy construction machines and large trucks. In 2011, state police in Northrhein-Westphalia recorded 986 cases with a total of 344,000 liters (90,875 gallons) stolen.

Thieves have become increasingly creative. Police have recorded incidents in which criminals have drilled holes into gas tanks of private cars or used stolen or fake licence plates so that they can remain unidentified at gas stations when they drive off without paying the bill.

"Last month, I lost 10,000 liters of fuel after thieves signed up for a special debit card with false identifications and then pulled up numerous times with different vehicles to steal my petrol," says Raker, the Molbergen gas station owner. “Police caught the culprit," he said, "but he was broke and I was left with the damage.”
Relief in sight? 
With anger on all sides, the mass-circulation BILD newspaper offered a sign of possible relief soon with the headline "Finally! A law against fuel rip-off.“ The article referred to a meeting of Germany's upper house of parliament last Friday, where politicians debated proposals for a new law, which could help calm down fluctuating gas prices.

Politicians in Berlin suggested that oil firms should be required to warn of new fuel prices by 2 p.m. on the day before the change, and the altered prices would have to remain unchanged for at least 24 hours.

Prices could also be stored in a central public database under a new law, which would give motorists the ability to check the cheapest pump prices in their vicinity with the help of the Internet or modern smart phones.

Yet, a decision on a possible new law is not expected before the end of the summer (or, as some believe, might not come at all).

And, despite the fact that there now appears to be light at the end of Germany's tunnels in regard to regulations that could stop the rollercoaster ride at the pump, the underlying price for crude oil on the world market is unlikely to fall dramatically any time soon.