Gas prices drop — but not for us

Tight supplies keep West Coast from following national trend

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoGas prices: Click chart to enlarge.

Retail gas prices in Southwest Washington and much of the West are pushing toward record levels, but long-awaited relief from budget-killing stops at the gas pumps could finally be on the way, the automobile club AAA Oregon/Idaho speculated Tuesday.

But first, more bad news. Vancouver's average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline climbed four cents last week to $4.24, according to AAA Oregon/Idaho. Across the Columbia, Oregon's statewide average is up three cents for the week, to $4.22.

And here's the part to read and weep: The national average for regular unleaded is now $3.68, down five cents from a week ago, AAA reported. The weather is probably better everywhere else too.

With the Memorial Day weekend just around the corner, AAA public affairs director Marie Dodds gave encouragement to motorists who've been thinking their cellphone's search app for the best gas prices has gone kaput. Dodds notes that in California, spot prices for gasoline -- wholesale prices for immediate delivery -- are now barely above $3 a gallon, compared with $3.50 to $3.60 earlier this month.

"The Pacific Northwest is the lone remaining hot spot with wholesale gas fetching about $3.39 a gallon, but that's down from the more than $3.65 seen earlier this month," Dodds said in her weekly news release. "This means most western markets could join the rest of the county with some modest price relief in time for the Memorial Day holiday."

Five states this week have gas selling at or above $4 a gallon. Hawaii is the most expensive for the 45th consecutive week at $4.54, followed by Alaska at $4.50, and California third at $4.33. Washington's prices were the fourth-highest at $4.24 and Oregon was fifth at $4.22. A common denominator: All are in the West, and all are potential vacation destinations.

South Carolina has the nation's cheapest gasoline at $3.34 per gallon.

Explanations of the reasons for the West Coast gasoline blues are a feeding fest for skeptics. Several refineries were closed for longer than anticipated, and three of the 12 California refineries that produce the summer blends were offline, AAA reported. Washington's Cherry Point refinery was shut down in February after a fire and has been mostly out of commission since then. The refinery problems contributed to the lowest West Coast fuel supplies for the month of May in two decades.

Meanwhile, crude oil prices have dropped by about 11 percent in the past month, largely in response to global economic concerns. For much of the country, that translated into falling gas prices. Nationally, gasoline peaked for the year at $3.94 per gallon on April 6. It's fallen for 42 of 46 days, decreasing by 26 cents during this period.

In pocketbook terms, that's a savings of $3.90 for a 15-gallon fill-up from the national peak to today's prices. Here's the sad news: Filling that 15-gallon tank costs $8.40 more at a Vancouver station than at the mythical "national average" station.

Not to worry, apparently, for some. AAA projects that almost 35 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home during the Memorial Day holiday weekend, an increase of 1.2 percent from last year. But here in the West, where gas costs the most, travel will be up by 1.5 percent over the holiday weekend, AAA projects. Perhaps people will be traveling to places with lower gas prices.

South Carolina, anyone?