Call him what you will, a Socialist, a leftist, etc. but don’t call him oblivious to the plight of the people.

Late this spring, when it became obvious that gas prices in Vermont and in the Burlington area in particular were far out of line with gas prices throughout the state, region and the country, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) didn’t just wring his hands and decry unfair pricing practices.

He called for an investigation, researched and this week chaired a U.S. Senate Energy Committee hearing on why gasoline prices in northwestern Vermont have been among the highest in the nation.

Senator Sanders’ investigation found that Burlington area gas prices over the past three years have exceeded the U.S. average 86 percent of the time – sometimes by as much as 29 cents per gallon. During the same period, Burlington prices exceeded the statewide average 72 percent of time. Prices in St. Albans exceeded both the U.S. average and the Vermont average 90 percent of the time.

Sanders’ hearings focused on how high gas prices affect ordinary Vermonters. One witness at this week’s hearing, Jim Coutts, testified about the impact on the Franklin County Senior Center he runs in St. Albans, VT. Its Meals on Wheels program delivers hot food to 70 homebound seniors five days a week. A typical 25-mile route requires two gallons of gas per delivery at a cost of about $7 a day. Most of the volunteer drivers, Coutts said, live on fixed incomes. Higher gas prices mean a driver shortage.

Sanders’ investigation found concentrated ownership of gas distributors and service stations was an issue and also found that competitors were hampered in their ability to break into the market.

Competition cannot be forced, but it can be fostered. More importantly, the Sanders investigation and hearings increased public awareness which is as critical in fair pricing as any other factor. The price differential between Burlington and northern Vermont pricing has decreased significantly in the past month and this week Burlington’s prices are very close to the national average.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders deserves credit for his role in creating public awareness and holding the Burlington and northern Vermont fuel suppliers and station owners accountable for their pricing structure.