Gas prices are rising, but fast-rising fuel prices are not necessarily price gouging, even if a consumer thinks $4 a gallon for gas is too expensive.

“They’re just charging us whatever they want basically,” Elizabeth Woodward said as she pumped gas at a local station. “We have to buy it so we’re going to pay for it.” “I do feel like it’s price gouging,” Kenneth Dohrty agreed.

Channel 2 Action News asked state officials for an official explanation of price gouging.

“When the governor declares a state of emergency, which is normally done during natural disasters, then the price gouging laws kick in,” said Bill Cloud with the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection.

Since our recent price hikes are not a result of any natural disaster, the free market reigns, according to Cloud.

“When there’s not a state of emergency in place, people can charge whatever they want to,” Cloud said. “You can have somebody over here charging $50 a gallon for gasoline if they want to.”

Once a state of emergency is declared, there’s a set price that gas stations can charge. They can only go above that if they’ve had a price hike in the gas they get, according to Cloud.

“If you have an increase of 50 cents a gallon, then you can charge the 50 cents a gallon higher,” Cloud said.

PDF: Stations Fined Or Cited For Gas Gouging In 2008

The last time price gouging laws went into effect for gasoline was 2008. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit the Gulf coast, damaging refineries and causing a fuel shortage.

The Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection has a small staff, Cloud said. It depends on consumers to complain if they see price gouging.

In 2008, thousands of people complained to staff members. The state investigated and reached settlements with 125 gas stations across the state.