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Published: Tuesday, 4/5/2005

Wallets running on empty; drivers seek gas bargains

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Oh, for the days of $2.13 a gallon! BP stations, like this one at Clark Drive and State Rt. 795, have the area's record price. Oh, for the days of $2.13 a gallon! BP stations, like this one at Clark Drive and State Rt. 795, have the area's record price.
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

Regular unleaded gasoline at $2.13 a gallon looked like a relative bargain yesterday afternoon to the motorists who lined up at one Toledo filling station.

That's because at most other gas stations in the area, the price of self-service, unleaded regular shot over the $2.30 per gallon mark yesterday for the first time ever. The price at most area pumps settled at $2.35 per gallon, though it climbed to at least $2.44 in southeastern Michigan.

"It's extortion. They know they've got us," said Paul Escobar of Toledo, as he bought gas at the "old" price of $2.129 for regular at the Sunoco station at Summit and Chestnut streets yesterday afternoon. "We've got to have gas to get around."

"Everybody's got to make a living, but this is ridiculous," said Al Kaczmarek, also of Toledo, who had a trunk-full of portable gasoline containers. He filled only one of them along with his auto, saying he couldn't afford to buy more.

Across the Maumee River, at the BP at Front and Main in East Toledo, Mario Diaz paid the new all-time high of $2.349 per gallon. A self-employed salesman, he said he can deal with higher prices because it is a business expense he can write off on his taxes.

"But you've still got to pay for it out of your pocket," Mr. Diaz said. "I think it's ridiculous, but you need gas. You've got no choice. You gotta drive, you gotta work."

The $2.349 price posted at numerous stations by the afternoon represented a 20-cent jump for many sites, but compared with a previous price peak late last week it was about a dime higher. Higher prices were found at scattered sites yesterday afternoon, particularly in southeastern Michigan where a larger state gasoline tax factors in traditionally higher prices.

Yet even those who were paying less for gas, like customers of several Wauseon stations - where prices remained in the $2.05 to $2.15 range into last evening - were unhappy.

"It's crazy," said Andy McCowan, a self-employed carpenter from Fulton County's Clinton Township near Wauseon.

Mr. McCowan said he has raised his hourly rate because of higher fuel prices -which have also led to increased shipping costs for many of the building materials he purchases. He said he has no viable alternatives to paying the price at the pumps.

"I've got to drive to make money," he said. "I've got to have a truck."

It was gridlock at 6 p.m. at the Sterling store at East Wooster and North Prospect streets in Bowling Green, where unleaded was an appealing $2.13 a gallon.

Kim Richmond of nearby Weston in Wood County, said she passed a higher price at a South Main Street station on the premise that Sterling usually raises its prices last. She was right.

"When I saw $2.25 out there, I came here,'' she said, adding that it's sad to think $2.13 seems like a good price.

The traffic situation was similar at the downtown Toledo Sunoco, where proprietor Karim Mahmoud said he expected to hold his $2.129 price until midnight. Some motorists filled up, while others bought just enough to keep their engines running.

Mr. Escobar was one of the latter, buying just $10 worth "until the prices hopefully go down."

But the way analysts told it yesterday, Mr. Escobar might as well have filled up with the $2.129 fuel."There's a potential for a lot more" price increases as spring progresses, said Denton Cinquegrana, markets editor for the Oil Price Information Service in Lyndhurst, N.J. "We usually peak around Memorial Day. I don't know when we're going to stop moving up."

A national average price of $2.25 per gallon, up from the current $2.17, is "a foregone conclusion," and it's possible that it will peak at $2.50, he said.

"It's simple Supply and Demand 101 right now. This country has an insatiable appetite for gasoline, and we haven't built any new refineries since the 1970s," Mr. Cinquegrana said.

With existing refineries running at full capacity when they're not taken down for maintenance, any production disruption could affect prices immediately, he said.

An explosion and fire last month at a BP refinery in Texas caused just such fears, though the accident affected only equipment that is used to convert regular gasoline into premium, he said.

Crude oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange declined yesterday from a record high of $58.28 per barrel reached on Friday, dropping to $57.01 for May-delivery oil. A top Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) official said the cartel would increase production quotas by 10 percent to keep high prices from stunting consumption growth.

"We are concerned about the prices," said Adnan Shihab-Eldin, OPEC's acting secretary general. "We don't want to face a boom-and-bust situation."

This week's retail price hike reflects last week's crude-oil and wholesale price increases, said Jacob Bournazian, an economist with the federal Energy Information Administration. Wholesale gasoline climbed 15 cents last week in the Chicago area, he said, driven partly by higher crude costs and also by the expectation of tighter supplies this summer as driving demand peaks.

Despite record prices, Mr. Bournazian said, "there has been strong gasoline demand this season," with overall gasoline inventories declining for each of the last three weeks.

Mr. Cinquegrana agreed that so far, expensive gasoline has done relatively little to alter consumers' behavior.

"This may be the summer when people are going to start reconsidering their driving habits and the cars they buy," he said.

AAA noted, however, that while gasoline prices are sharply higher compared with last year, its estimated total costs for operating three sizes of automobile are virtually unchanged because of lower average insurance and routine maintenance costs. The auto club calculated that a new passenger car purchased this year will, on average, cost 56.1 cents per mile to operate this year, down from 56.2 cents per mile last year.

Blade Staff Writers Jennifer Feehan and Jane Schmucker contributed to this report, as did The Blade's wire services.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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