With pump prices soaring, Md. drivers grumbling

`We are definitely getting gouged'

March 14, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Forget Iraq. Forget the economy. Never mind all the reasons why. So far as motorists in Columbia were concerned, paying $2.02 per gallon for premium gasoline is highway robbery.

So they didn't. Most of them bought regular gasoline at $1.79 per gallon - which still was 8 cents higher than the national average and about 12 cents higher than the average at Baltimore stations.

It's not as if they had a choice, many of them groused. Walking isn't an option.

"We are definitely getting gouged," said Kathy McKinley, 43, principal at Bonnie Branch Middle School in Ellicott City. On a lunch break yesterday at the Mobil station by Long Gate Shopping Center, she shelled out $26 for less than 13 gallons of premium blend. "It's probably going to get worse."

While there's no evidence of price manipulation to feed conspiracy theories, fuel experts warn that the frustration will probably get worse, as pump prices are expected to continue rising.

In its weekly report on retail gasoline prices, the U.S. Department of Energy said Monday that the nationwide average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline rose to a 21-month high of $1.712 a gallon.

Compared with a month ago, the cost of a gallon has jumped 4 cents in Baltimore and 10 cents nationwide. Compare that with the $1.22 average a year ago and prices are 48 cents higher, according to the American Automobile Association's daily fuel gauge report.

California pump prices for gasoline are the highest in the country, reaching $2.127 a gallon for regular-grade fuel this week, AAA reported. Prices in San Francisco reached a record $2.251 for regular yesterday.

"I was in a conference with oil experts this week, and I didn't hear anyone predicting that prices were going to drop anytime soon," said Deborah DeYoung, a spokeswoman at AAA MidAtlantic. "We're going to be breaking records we've kept since 1974 pretty soon. We haven't seen prices this high since the gas crisis of the '70s.

"It will add about $500 more for gasoline this year for the average driver, or about $42 more a month," DeYoung said. "It's not pretty."

No one needs to tell that to Debi Harvey.

While driving to a swim meet in Joppatowne with her two sons a couple weeks ago, the 48-year-old Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman had to fill up her Ford Escort wagon at an Exxon station near Mountain Road.

"When we got to the gas station, the price was $1.679 a gallon," said Harvey, who fills up twice a week to see clients in Pennsylvania and on the Eastern Shore. "Five hours later, after the swim competition, it was $1.739. It's scary that in five hours, they raised it 6 cents a gallon."

"I am absolutely getting gouged," she added. Experts say the higher prices are not the result of gouging, it is a confluence of negative factors - a lot of bad things happening all at once.

Even though the strike in Venezuela has been resolved, production levels there are still down. There were recent concerns about a potential Nigerian oil strike. A much colder winter in much of the Northern Hemisphere forced refiners to make more heating oil instead of gasoline to keep pace with rising demand. And continuing fears about war in Iraq will keep influencing prices, said John C. Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute.

"It's the perfect storm in the world energy markets," Felmy said. "The second quarter typically has lower demand because temperatures are warming up and it's right before the driving season, so that could reduce pressure on the markets. But the question of Iraq is a complete wildcard. The final unknown is the economy. Prices could go either way.

"One can't really tell at this point."

Marylanders might also brace themselves for a possible gas tax increase. With a crushing deficit to deal with and a need to balance the budget, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly haven't ruled it out.

Kevin Van Workman supports that idea, even though he is spending $150 a month to drive back and forth between Columbia and Gaithersburg to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"I know I'm not supposed to say it, but I've always been a proponent for raising gas taxes to cut down driving," the 28-year-old chemical engineer said.

As for why gas in Columbia is more expensive than in areas such as Towson, where regular gasoline is 11 cents cheaper, station owners say higher rent in their area and fuel increases dictated by corporate parents dictate pump prices.

Barbara Stigler, manager of Long Gate Mobil, wants people to remember that the price increases are not her fault. She knows her prices are higher than others, and she can hear the groans when the price board goes higher.

"Whenever we have to change the prices on the board, I try to make the owner go outside and do it," Stigler said. "You know, just in case he's got to dodge bullets or something."

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