As weather warms, California leads climb in gas prices

By Michelle Morgante, The Associated Press
Friday March 29, 2002

SAN DIEGO — Drivers across the nation are digging deeper into their wallets to cover rising gasoline prices, which have leapt an average of 23 cents per gallon over the last month — the most dramatic change in more than a decade. 

Californians, who shoulder the added costs of reformulated gasoline mandated by pollution restrictions, are facing the highest prices in the continental United States - $1.59 on average. 

Prices in Los Angeles rose from $1.31 to $1.56 last month, while in San Diego they climbed from $1.39 to $1.62. Bay Area motorists, meanwhile, have seen prices jump from $1.42 to $1.68. 

Lisa Alcantara of Pacifica pumped $1.89-per-gallon premium into her Lexus SUV in San Francisco. 

“It’s crazy,” she said. “I just have to get in my car and go and not think about it. ... There is not a whole lot you can do. We all need gas.” 

The national average Thursday stood at $1.35 for unleaded, according to a AAA survey. The rise is fueled by a combination of factors, analysts say, including a recent decision by OPEC and other oil producers to hold down production, and the traditional spring rise in demand as driving time increases with the warming weather. 

The four-week leap is the sharpest seen by the Energy Information Administration, the statistical branch of the Department of Energy, since it began keeping records in 1990. 

Part of the reason is that gas prices fell to bargain levels — below $1 a gallon in some areas — in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which hampered travel and slowed the economy. 

“Now that the economy has started to recover, and we’re starting to head into the summer driving season, the industry is really having to come from behind a little bit,” AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said in Orlando, Fla. 

Prices still are below the national average of March 2001, when it was $1.43 due largely to the then-strong economy. 

“It went down so low, we had a bonus there for awhile,” said Vesper Gibbs Barnes, a Boston attorney who dropped her car off at a Mobile station. “I guess I’ll keep driving everywhere. I have to deal with it.” 

Crude oil prices have risen to about $25 a barrel since December, when OPEC decided the $20 a barrel they were earning then was too low, said Douglas MacIntyre, senior oil market analyst with the Energy Information Administration in Washington. 

Every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of crude oil translates into a per-gallon hike of about 2.5 cents, he said. Based on current trends, motorists should expect to see per-gallon prices rise another 5 cents to 15 cents over the next several weeks, he said. 

David Underwood, an Atlanta electrician who puts about 24,000 miles a year on his pickup truck, passes the added costs on to his customers. 

“It seems like it was less than a dollar a gallon not that long ago,” he said. “It seems like it’s gone up real fast.” 

But cab drivers in many areas are unable to pass on the costs due to government control of their rates. “It’s very difficult for us,” Yellow Cab General Manager Rebecca Escobar said in El Paso. Rising prices “cut directly into their gross profit.” 

Said one San Diego taxi driver who gave only his last name, Contreras: ”$5 less for me is five less hamburgers for my kids.” 

How far prices will climb exactly is uncertain, said Carol Thorp, spokeswoman for the Auto Club of Southern California. Perhaps Americans who canceled travel plans last year due to high gas prices or Sept. 11 will feel the urge to hit the highways this year, she noted. 

“This summer is a question mark at the moment,” Thorp said. “Anyone who tells you they can predict that is not correct.” 

Bill Potts, a retired banking supervisor, filled his Chevy Blazer at a Costco store in Chula Vista, taking advantage of its discount prices. 

His family is being careful to consolidate errands into one trip, and no longer takes pleasure drives through the mountains. “You don’t have that luxury anymore,” he said. 

John Young of St. Louis grumbled about the climbing prices as he filled up his minivan in Chicago after a family vacation trip. 

“It’s outrageous,” Young said. “If you look at the price of wholesale gas, it’s pretty much stayed the same. It’s all obviously to take advantage of spring break.” 

The price hike had commuters in warm locales looking to more fuel-efficient alternatives. 

Antonio Solares, 26, has to fill up his 1995 Ford Escort every other day for the commute between his home in Tijuana, Mexico, and his job in northern San Diego. 

“I’m thinking of getting a motorcycle — seriously,” Solares said at a gas station near the border. 

But in Miami, William Morales was unfazed as his pumped $1 of gas into his scooter. 

“They can raise the price 200 times, and it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “This doesn’t bother me at all.” 


On the Net: 

Energy Information Administration: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/gdu/gasdiesel.asp 

AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report: