Voters' fuel fury runs out of gas

Drop of nearly $1 a gallon since August shifts Marylanders' focus

November 03, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CAMBRIDGE -- It was math, pure and simple, that guided Tim Kober as he headed down U.S. 50 from his home in Annapolis to visit his father in Rehoboth Beach.

A few pennies per gallon of gasoline add up, and if you're driving a brawny late-model Ford Explorer like Kober's, you'll skip the $2.12 pumps in Easton, drive another 20 miles or so on your way and sidle up to $2.01 lanes at the Wawa or three or four other gas stations in Cambridge.

Kober, a diligent gasoline bargain hunter on his frequent trips to the Delaware shore, grimaced when he found out that the store and most of its competitive neighbors along the busy highway were pumping regular-grade gasoline at $1.99 a gallon a few days earlier.

But on the bright side, Kober noted, prices that topped $3 a gallon at the pump just a few months ago have plummeted - falling nearly $1 a gallon at Maryland stations since mid-August, according to weekly surveys by AAA Mid-Atlantic.

With gas prices relatively stable, voters who'll go to the polls Tuesday apparently aren't feeling any urgency about the issue, especially in recent weeks, as news from the war in Iraq has dominated coverage.

Johns Hopkins University political science professor Matthew Crenson said the sudden drop in gasoline prices and heightened concern about the war have lead to lessened interest in energy woes.

"When the price is so high and then drops suddenly, we feel a sense of relief," Crenson said. "This was news last year. There are so many other issues for people to focus on right now, and the war in Iraq is just overshadowing everything else."

Kober, like other motorists filling up this week at lower-priced Cambridge stations, said spiraling energy costs that were front-page news a year ago aren't getting much attention in high-profile gubernatorial and congressional campaigns.

"Basically, I think this is a nationwide issue," Kober, a real estate appraiser, said Tuesday. "It's bigger than just this area. I have a sister in California and they're paying 60 cents more."

But Toni Kendall, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Alliance, says a majority of voters are concerned about energy.

"It's not just gasoline prices, which no one expects will stay down long," Kendall said. "Our polling shows that the energy crisis is the No. 3 or 4 most important issue. We think people are sophisticated enough to understand global warming."

Yesterday's AAA survey showed the average price of gasoline nationwide was $2.21, with Marylanders paying an average of $2.15. Motorists in Baltimore are paying an average of $2.12.

Eastern Shore drivers, who recently enjoyed months of cut-rate prices compared to motorists in urban areas, are now paying an average of $2.07, according to AAA. But at the pumps in Cambridge yesterday, prices had fallen once again to $1.99.

Over the summer, motorists on the Shore and in Western Maryland bought gas for up to 40 cents less than their counterparts in metropolitan areas, who are required to use gasoline that contains ethanol, an expensive pollution-control additive that also has dropped in price.

"What's really remarkable is that prices have come down 94 cents a gallon between mid-July and mid-October," said Troy Green, a spokesman for AAA. "What we are seeing is a much slower drop in prices, but they're still coming down. This week's survey shows that it's slowed up a lot. "

With the price of crude oil falling to $57.88 yesterday, industry experts expect stable prices to continue, barring a catastrophic storm or terrorist attack.

"This is traditionally the time of year when demand is going down, and now with crude oil under $60, you're going to see lower prices," said Ed Ellis, who owns a petroleum distribution company near Ocean City.

Susan Banks, communications director for an environmental restoration firm in St. Michaels, doesn't believe gas prices will be a priority for most voters.

"I was a political science major in college, so I've put some thought into the election," Banks said. "I don't think it's an issue that the Congress or the governor can affect much."

Lloyd Martin, an Ocean City town councilman who has owned a convenience store for nearly 30 years, said he seems to be changing his gasoline prices every day or so, a chore made easier by a new electronic sign he can change without going outdoors.

"There seems to be a little change just about every day, but I think prices are going to stay down for a while," Martin said. "We're out of hurricane season and demand drops as winter comes."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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