SAN DIEGO — At one of the busiest intersections in Sherman Oaks, California — drivers sit bumper-to-bumper, searching for a good deal on a tank of gasoline. They pass one gas station, then another, and then a third — as they gradually begin to accept the new norm in the Golden State: Fuel is about $4 per gallon.
“It’s too high,” said Los Angeles resident Keith Adams, as he topped off his small SUV. “Today, it’s going to cost me 50 to 60 dollars, and usually it costs me 35-40 bucks.”
For Adams, who drives across the Los Angeles basin each day, this week’s spike means thinking twice before hitting the road. “I have to monetize, and figure out how I need to drive when I’m making these long journeys,” he said. “I fill up a lot. I’m going to be extra careful. I may not spend as much time just driving around. I may pull to the side (to handle business).”
This is just the beginning for car-centric California, as prices are expected to continue increasing as Memorial Day weekend approaches.
Two major factors play into sudden sticker shock at the pump, says AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano. “There’s a switch over to a summer blend (of gasoline), which is a more expensive fuel for refineries to produce, and that extra cost is passed along to motorists at the pump,” she said.
Concurrently, unplanned — and planned — refinery maintenance tightens the number of gasoline stocks available.
“So when stocks are going down, amid a time there’s a pretty robust demand, you’re going to see gas prices increase,” Casselano said.
The average price in California stands at $3.87 per gallon of regular-grade gas, creeping up 22 cents from one week ago, according to AAA. The state’s average one month ago was just $3.31. Prices in metropolitan areas are even higher. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, drivers are paying about $3.94 per gallon. San Franciscans are forking over close to $3.96.
The national average is $2.76 per gallon.
Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia have the lowest prices, ranging from $2.55 to $2.46 per gallon, according to AAA.
“On the West Coast, we see prices shoot up every summer,” Casselano said. “The weather is changing — and when we’re in spring and summer, demand increases. People are hitting the roads more. They have the winter blues behind them, and they want to take road trips, probably running more errands on weekends, and do more that requires them to fill up the car.”
A third factor is the availability of ethanol, said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at Gas Buddy. Ethanol is an effective motor fuel made from corn and plants, according to the California Energy Commission. Most ethanol plants are in the Midwest, but there are sizable delays as a result of flooding in the Midwest, DeHaan said.
On the ground, these factors simply add up to drivers feeling its trickle-down effects.
“It makes it hard on my wallet,” said Rebecca Hilgen, whose job requires driving hundreds of miles from her home in Orange County toward San Luis Obispo and the Central Valley.
When gas prices are up, she maps out where to stop, avoiding areas where it’s more expensive. “I have to make sure of where I’m going, especially if I’m traveling in my car to go up north to Bakersfield, or up the coast. I have to make sure I get gas ahead of where I’d normally get it (when prices are stable),” she said.
Hilgen owns a 2008 Chrysler Sebring, an older model that sucks up more gas than a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle on the market. “It’s a huge amount of money. I noticed it driving today,” she said. “In wintertime, I’m not thinking about gas as much, because you can get one-third of a tank more for the same amount of money.”
Hilgen fills up every other day during the summer, as opposed to every four days, when winter-blend gasoline is sold. The summertime pinch demands she watch her budget off the road. “You can’t go out to dinner as much, out with friends … even grocery shopping. You can’t buy this, you can’t buy that.”
Forecasters see this trend continuing for about one more month, not just in California, but across the country.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the high tide mark yet,” said DeHaan. “I think it’s nearly a guarantee that in the next four weeks, prices will continue to go up. But if past years are an indication … the month of June should see prices backing off some of those highs.”
Meanwhile, drivers can stave off costly effects by making small changes in their driving habits, like purchasing gas earlier in the week.
Monday is the best day to buy gas, according to a new Gas Buddy study. The first day of the week saw the lowest average gas prices in 30 states. “As the week progresses and our excitement builds for the weekend, gas prices also have a tendency to rise. The most expensive day to fill up barely remains Friday when looking at averages, while 16 states saw Saturday have the highest average price. Sundays represented the third-worst day to fill up, bringing our study to a conclusion that weekends are the worst time to fill up. You might as well flush money down the toilet,” DeHaan said.
AAA advises drivers to slow down.
“Every five miles over 50 mph is like paying an additional 18 cents per gallon,” said Casselano. Accelerating gradually, combining errands and clearing trunk space to lighten vehicle load can lead to fuel efficiency. Otherwise, there is little consumers can do besides wait for prices to fall. Nationally, people say $3 per gallon is too high, but they’re more likely to make lifestyle changes at the $3.25-$3.50 per gallon mark.
“I’m putting all (the extra) money in the gas tank,” said Adams. “I’m just burning it, and driving it off every day.”