Gas signs allegedly mislabel premium

Legislator accuses chain in pushing bill requiring correct ads

April 05, 2001|By Paul Adams and Jeff Barker | Paul Adams and Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The Sheetz gasoline-convenience store chain has been promoting some of its midgrade gasoline as "premium," even though its octane level is too low to qualify, says a state delegate.

Del. John P. Donoghue, a Washington County Democrat, wants to stop Sheetz Inc., which has more than two dozen Maryland stores, from "using their price signs to mislead motorists" who want to buy premium.

He has introduced a bill requiring gasoline retailers to make sure that roadside signs posting the prices of the three gasoline grades conform with the state comptroller's definition of "premium" gasoline.

"This is about truth in advertising," Donoghue said.

A spokesman for Sheetz said the chain properly labels its gasoline at the pump and never meant to confuse anybody with the tall "sky signs" it uses to advertise prices to passing motorists. The company is in the process of changing the signs to conform with state labeling guidelines for premium gasoline, he said.

"The problem is that it takes some time to get those changes made," said Mike Cortez, vice president and general counsel for Sheetz, which is based in Altoona, Pa.

The state comptroller's office says "premium" gasoline has an octane level of 91 or above, but less than 98. It is used in some luxury and high-performance vehicles. Midgrade gasoline usually has an octane level of 89, and "regular" gasoline has an octane level of 87.

The problem is that roadside signs advertising gasoline prices at some Sheetz stores labeled its midgrade gasoline as "premium," even though the octane level - as correctly indicated on the pump - is below 91, according to Donoghue.

Richard A. Carey, director of the comptroller's motor fuel tax division, said current regulations specify proper labeling at the pump, but say nothing about the tall roadside signs that most gasoline stations post on their property. His office has received some complaints about the issue, though he didn't know how many.

"We don't want people to be misled into thinking they're getting a higher-octane gasoline," he said.

Cortez, the Sheetz vice president, said that at one time there were no mandatory guidelines for how to identify midgrade gasoline, which is somewhere between "regular" and "premium" gasoline. State officials later made such rules mandatory, and the company took steps to comply with the labeling rules, he said.

Because gasoline is already properly labeled at the pump, Sheetz questions whether any motorists were actually confused by the "sky signs" that advertise the prices of the three gasoline grades at some Sheetz stores.

About 10 percent of cars require premium gasoline, and 10 percent of motorists buy premium regardless of whether their cars require it, Carey said.

Donoghue's bill has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate.

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