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Gas prices setting new records
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Photo by THOMAS MICHALSKI
This Sunoco station at Park Boulevard and Belcher Road in Pinellas Park is jammed with cars whose owners wanted to fill up before prices go higher.
PINELLAS COUNTY – Gas prices are like a yo-yo, springing up and down in response to a variety of market pressures.

The problem is: Consumers are left dangling on the end of the string.

Historically gas prices rise in the spring, and motorists hold tight to their wallets waiting to see how high they will go before Memorial Day, the traditional opening of the summer driving and vacation season.

In recent years, the experts would speculate whether or not pump prices would rise above $3.

This year, gas prices seem to be in a hurry to rise to the top. A new record high was set in Tampa Bay on Feb. 23 of $3.17 for a gallon of regular grade unleaded.

The price for a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.14 on Feb. 22; $3.03 in January; and $2.25 on Feb. 23, 2007, according to AAA Auto Club’s Fuel Gauge Report.

The experts attribute a combination of factors for the sudden rise in pump prices, including talk of possible production cuts by OPEC, potential lowering of interest rates and refinery problems.

“As the winter draws to a close, well ahead of the summer driving season, gasoline prices are already rising, reaching $3.04 per gallon this past Monday (Feb. 18 national average),” officials with the Energy Information Administration said in the Feb. 20 This Week in Petroleum Report.

EIA attributed an increase to rising crude oil prices, which closed for the first time ever at more than $100 a barrel on Feb. 19, and unusual refinery outages as reasons for high gas prices in 2006-07.

EIA officials believe “the situation looks promising” for refinery capacity to be improved compared to the past couple of years. Most of the hurricane damage has been repaired and production is back to near-normal capacity.

Most signs point to an increase in gas production in 2008 as compared to 2007, which should mean that gas prices would at least stabilize and maybe even drop a bit.

However, any unplanned outages, such as the Feb. 18 explosion at an oil refinery in Big Spring Texas, could disturb the delicate balance of the market causing prices to continue to rise.

Some experts believe recent yo-yo moves are mostly the result of financial pressures.

AAA Auto Club’s experts point to remarks from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke about lowering the interest rates as one cause for the price increase.

“Lower rates generally weaken the dollar against the euro, thus increasing oil prices as investors overseas buy up oil contracts,” AAA’s experts said.

Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Services said the recent price hikes are “financial and speculative and makes no sense.”

“We fully agree,” said Randy Bly, director of community relations at AAA Auto Club South.

While the experts continue to speculate and prices continue move up and down, motorists are left dangling.

The best advice from economists is to drive less. Plan trips to get the most from each gallon of gas. Make sure vehicles are in good repair.

Shop around. Ask neighbors, friends and co-workers where they’ve found the best gas prices. Use the Internet.

On Feb. 24, the cheapest price reported at TampaGasPrices.com was $3.07 in Pinellas Park and the highest price was in Seminole at $3.25 – that’s a savings of 18 cents a gallon.

The report at autos.msn.com (found under the “my car” link) showed a low price of $3.09 in Largo and a high price of $3.19 at stations in Indian Rocks Beach, Largo and Seminole – 10 cents a gallon difference in prices.

Some motorists may want to consider cutting the string. The experts recommend riding a bike, walking, and there’s always the bus.

Floridians also should note, according to the EIA, Gulf Coast gas prices are still the cheapest in the nation.
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