With gas prices near record levels, Pacific Northwest drivers have been buying less gas the past week, area dealers say. But no one knows if that means Labor Day highways will be busier or quieter than usual.
Spokane-area gas retailers on Wednesday said they’re seeing a gradual decline in gasoline purchases. But they’re not sure if drivers are changing their habits or simply waiting out a price spike.
“A lot less people are filling all the way up,” said Sam Roark, manager of the Broadway Flying J, one of four Flying J franchise stations in Eastern Washington.
With the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Midwest gas supplies, area dealers this week originally feared unleaded gas would hit $3 a gallon. That price would mark the highest ever in Eastern Washington, adjusted for inflation. It’s also a psychological barrier that dealers hope to avoid, said Tim Hamilton, president of Auto United Trades Organization, a trade group representing independent gas dealers, based in McCleary, Wash.
“Dealers I know want like anything to keep their prices below $3,” said Hamilton.
Some say the price of gas still won’t dampen drivers’ readiness to take to the roads this weekend.
“For most drivers in the Northwest, the increases won’t impact them,” said Dave Overstreet, public affairs manager for the Spokane AAA office.
“People complain about higher gas prices, but they go on anyway,” he said. Getting to $3 a gallon may not make any difference, the same way it didn’t affect driving habits at $2 or $2.50 per gallon, he said.
Gas dealers all say the market is as unpredictable as they’ve ever seen it. “I’ve had to raise prices nearly every day for about three weeks,” said Jim Redmon, president of Divine’s Auto Centers, which runs four area Shell stations.
Redmon and other operators passed along a dime-per-gallon hike they got from their wholesalers late Tuesday.
But Don Alsaker, who owns the Broadway Flying J and three other stations in Eastern Washington, said he got a one-day reprieve Wednesday; his regular afternoon fax from his wholesale supplier showed no price hike.
“I got lucky. I don’t have to raise prices tonight,” Alsaker said.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said in a press release Wednesday that although the state has five oil refineries and receives most of its crude oil and natural gas from Alaska, the devastation among Gulf states affects West Coast oil distribution.
“Although Washington has sufficient crude oil supplies, rates here can be affected by an anticipated shortage elsewhere. In addition, neighboring states that have historically relied on the Gulf region for petroleum may seek to purchase from Washington refineries,” McKenna said.
Alsaker said his sources predict the price of diesel — now around $2.98 per gallon in Eastern Washington — “could go the other direction later this week.”
Regular unleaded, however, is a mystery, and will be affected by intangibles such as the release of oil from the federal strategic reserve, said Redmon.
Alsaker and many Spokane-area dealers get their fuel from the huge Yellowstone pipeline terminal in Spokane Valley north of Broadway.
Each day, Alsaker sends his trucks there and his drivers load up different amounts of gasoline grades based on the past few days’ demand.
“For now, I’m cutting my orders by close to 5 percent,” Alsaker said. Some of that decline is the result of spiked prices, he said.
“But some of it might just be the time of year, when more kids are going back to school.”
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