If you see a gas station where the big sign out front features a price that begins with a three, fill up. It may be your last chance this spring and summer to buy sub-$4 gas.
Both GasBuddy.com and AAA reported Friday afternoon that average prices in Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia for a gallon of regular unleaded had passed the $4 benchmark. The average price in Seattle was $4.011 a gallon. Olympia prices averaged $4.008, and Tacoma prices were an even $4 on GasBuddy.com. AAA Washington reported nearly identical prices.
Washington has yet to join the nine states where prices exceed the $4 mark on average, but the state average was $3.976 on the AAA report.
Gas prices in the Evergreen State have jumped by nearly 20 cents a gallon in the past month. With crude oil trading at in excess of $113 a barrel Friday, analysts warn not to expect prices to fall soon.
Gasoline station owners and fuel distributors are feeling the pinch as much or more than consumers, said Lea Wilson, executive director of the Washington Oil Marketers Association.
“When prices go up, consumers buy less gas,” said Wilson. “The gas business is a volume business, not a price business,” she said. “The more gallons we sell, the more money we make.”
Higher prices are dictated to distributors and retailers by oil companies,” she said. “We don’t have bargaining power. They set the prices. As gas prices rise, so do the costs of providing credit and debit card services to customers. Those charges are based on a percentage of the total sale, not on the number of gallons purchased.
In recent weeks, she said, the oil distributors have seen gas prices change as often three times a day.
“You’ve got no idea what the price will be when your tanker truck reaches the fuel terminal,” she said.
Wilson blamed Wall Street speculators for the price increases.
“We’ve got plenty of supply,” she said. “So its not a shortage that’s driving up pump prices.”
Other oil experts blame the price escalations on increasing demand from rapidly growing countries such as China, coupled with a change in policy by big oil producer Saudi Arabia. In the past, that Mideast nation has stabilized prices by increasing production. Now Saudi Arabia is standing pat.
How high will gas prices get this summer? Some experts think the price jump will run out of energy well before it reaches the $5 mark. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this week that “Our view is that gas prices will not continue to rise at the recent pace.
Meanwhile, what’s a consumer to do? At mid-afternoon Friday, TacomaGasPrices.com reported the least expensive gas in Tacoma was at two Arco stations, at South 56th and South Orchard streets, and at Puyallup and Portland avenues. The price? $3.83 a gallon.