It’s back: $4-per-gallon gas

Ethan Pinney of Clinton pumps gas at the Freeland Shell station on Monday afternoon. “We should get ready for a bigger surprise next year,” he said.  - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Ethan Pinney of Clinton pumps gas at the Freeland Shell station on Monday afternoon. “We should get ready for a bigger surprise next year,” he said.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

The price of gas on South Whidbey rapidly passed the $4-per-gallon mark during the weekend, the highest level in nearly four years.

Prices increased more than 6 cents per gallon from Friday to Sunday at most local locations.

Analysts blamed the shaky state of the Middle East, especially Libya, rampant speculation on the international commodities market, the changeover from winter- to summer-grade fuel at the refineries and increased demand in emerging nations such as China and India.

“It’s not going to stop going up until we pay what everybody else in the world does,” David Lee Gordon of Freeland predicted Monday afternoon as he prepared to pay $8.98 for little more than two gallons of regular gasoline for his lawn mower at the Freeland Shell station.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Gordon added. “People have to wake up. The electric car is the only thing that will save us.”

The prices per gallon of fuel at the Shell station reflected those at most other South End stations: $4.059 for regular, $4.179 for mid-grade and $4.299 for premium.

They were the highest prices since the spring of 2008, when a gallon of regular unleaded topped $4 for the first time, and they reflect a rising trend throughout the state and nation.

According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, which tracks daily prices, the average price in Washington on Tuesday morning was $3.926 for regular, $4.041 for mid-grade, $4.144 for premium and $4.376 for diesel.

Nationally, the average prices on Tuesday were $3.835, $3.974, $4.103 and $4.134. A year ago, the prices were $2.862, $3.039, $3.148 and $3.064, AAA said.

The highest average prices ever across the nation were posted on July 17, 2008 — $4.114 for regular unleaded and $4.845 for diesel.

“We should get ready for a bigger surprise next year,” predicted Ethan Pinney of Clinton as he squirted unleaded in an old borrowed Toyota station wagon. “The price is going to keep going up.”

“Most of the world already pays more than we do,” he added. He and Gordon both predicted that $5-per-gallon gas can’t be far off.

David Overstreet of AAA in Bellevue agreed that prices are high due to a number of factors, but declined to forecast an increase to $5.

“That’s not what we’re hearing,” Overstreet said Monday. “We don’t think that’s likely to happen. We think maybe we’ve reached the apex on prices.”

Likely or not to go even higher, the current price levels are being felt on Whidbey.

Kevin Lungren, transportation manager for the South Whidbey School District, said the rising price of fuel probably means the district will be $15,000 to $20,000 over its fuel budget for the year, which ends in August.

He said the district purchases fuel for its two dozen buses and its trucks and other vehicles under a state contract that fluctuates with the rise and fall of gasoline prices.

“It’s affecting us for sure,” Lungren said.

He said fuel-saving measures are being taken by the district, including idling limits for buses, electric warm-up stations and maintaining proper tire pressure.

At Good Cheer Food Bank, executive director Kathy McLaughlin said rising gas prices deal a double whammy to the nonprofit organization.

She said the number of families being helped are at a record level — 831 in the past month alone — and that many of them may be choosing between food and gas.

Meanwhile, rising gas prices mean Good Cheer has to spend more money to keep its truck on the road to the mainland twice a week to collect free food from a regional co-op, and to collect donated items which the nonprofit sells at its thrift stores.

“We definitely feel that a crisis in fuel costs dramatically effects our operation,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the cost of doing business. We can’t cut back.”

At Washington State Ferries, spokeswoman Marta Coursey said Monday that there has been no word that a surcharge to cover increased fuel costs will be added to fares, as it has in the past.

“It depends on what the Legislature does with regard to fare revenues, surcharges and fuel budgets,” Coursey said. “We may know within the week.”

Back at the pumps, operators of the South End’s gas stations said there appears to be a big difference between now and when prices first topped $4 per gallon in 2008: People aren’t taking it out on them.

Michael McCarthy, who was a month into his job as an employee at the Freeland Shell station in 2008, said customers have been grumbling about the current price increases, but mostly appear to be resigned to the situation and tend to fill their tanks, expecting the prices to go even higher.

“Hopefully, the prices won’t go up,” McCarthy said.

At the Clinton Square Chevron, owner Kim Yang agreed about customer reaction.

“They’re not upset,” she said. “People pretty much are expecting it, and try to fill up as much as they can.”

Yang said her prices, currently the highest on the South End at $4.099 for regular unleaded, are set by the distributor, and that she makes only a couple of cents profit on each gallon sold.

“It’s not a money-maker,” she said. “I wish we could lower our prices for our customers, but it probably won’t happen for a while.”

Yang said she’s heard from several customers that they may cut back their summer travel because of the high price of fuel.

Lungren acknowledged the effect of gas prices on his own travel plans. He said he and his wife expected to pay $200 this coming weekend driving to Spokane and back to watch his son receive a journalism award.

“I know vacations are going to be down, but why not spend them here?” he mused. “Why get through a winter on Whidbey, and then not spend a summer on Whidbey?”

Back at the Freeland Shell station, Tim Wescott, owner of a local flooring company, finished pumping $150 worth of gas into his delivery van and his pickup truck, neither of which received a full tank.

Wescott said he spends more than $2,000 per month for fuel for his half a dozen vehicles, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year.

“I give my employees $10 per day for gas, and it isn’t nearly enough,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t go to diesel.”

At the next pump, Gordon said he’s fortunate to work at home.

“I can’t wait to get rid of this dinosaur,” he said of his old Ford Windstar minivan. “Show me an electric car I can afford, and I’m in.”



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