With tightening gasoline stocks and seasonal refinery maintenance, gas prices will continue to rise in Washington and across the nation, according to AAA.
At $3.51, the state’s average price per gallon is well above the national average price of $2.88, according to AAA. For diesel, Washington buyers are spending about $3.42 per gallon on average, compared to $3.10 nationally.
Lea Rehak, a resident of Carrolls, Cowlitz County, filled up the tank in her Kia Soul on Wednesday at the Astro Express Mart in Longview. She said the rising prices were “why I’m at the Express. It’s one of the cheapest prices in town,” at $3.39 a gallon.
Rehak said that she traded her Trans Am for the Kia because it gets more than double the miles per gallon.
Regular fuel prices are up about 20 to 40 cents from a month ago, when fuel cost $3.16 per gallon on average in the state and $2.69 per gallon on average nationally.
Jennifer Cook, spokeswoman for AAA of Washington, said Washington gas prices will continue to rise but won’t reach $4 a gallon this summer if “nothing happens to disrupt the system.”
“For the most part, our inventories are good, and our refineries are refining a much larger capacity than they ever had. … But again, things happen, and it’s hard to predict,” Cook said.
The increase in prices is caused by ongoing refinery maintenance, Cook said. Usually maintenance season “wraps up” around April, but this year, some repairs are taking longer than expected and some Western refineries are doing additional “unplanned” maintenance, Cook said.
“That’s why the whole West Coast is seeing higher prices, because our inventories have continued to drop for about six weeks,” Cook said.
Prices also tend to be higher along the West Coast in general, with all of the region’s states consistently landing on top-10 lists for the most expensive fuel, according to AAA. Washington state sits at No. 3, behind California ($4.08 average) and Hawaii ($3.63 average).
Washington’s prices are also about 20 cents higher than they were this time last year, while the national average is about 7 cents higher. However, Cook said comparing year to year doesn’t always “show the full story” because the start and end of maintenance season are highly variable.
Gas prices typically peak around July and August, Cook said, but last year, Washington saw its highest prices in October.
Rising prices aren’t unusual during this time of year, though. Cook said prices typically rise starting as early as mid-February, when refineries slow their production and begin maintenance and switch from winter-blend fuel to a more expensive summer blend.
Cook said gas prices are likely to continue their upward trend and will probably remain volatile during ongoing refinery maintenance. Based trends from the past four years, they’ll probably plateau, then start declining in July or August, she said.
Longview resident Rick Fultz stopped at the 15th Avenue Safeway on Wednesday to get gas for his pickup. A disabled Vietnam veteran on a fixed income, Fultz said the spike in prices “takes away from something else, like food or travel.”
He said he plans to eat out less often and will probably go to the beach only once this summer, as opposed to taking five or six trips.
“It just costs too much,” Fultz said.
Other local drivers agreed that higher gas prices change their daily routines. Rehak, the Carrolls resident, said she tries to complete all of her “in-town” errands in one trip. And Aaron Plampin of Longview, who commutes to his job at the Ilani Casino in Ridgefield, Clark County, said he skipped a friend’s barbecue in Castle Rock last week because gas was too pricey.
“It just seems like as a member of the general public, you don’t have a lot of control over it,” Plampin said as he topped off his tank at Safeway Wednesday.
River Cities Transit (RCT) Manager Amy Asher said the local bus system typically sees a rise in riders as gas prices increase. For example, RCT had its highest volume of riders (almost 3,500 more than its 2018 annual average) in October, when gas prices peaked for the year.
The RCT vehicles are part of the city of Longview’s 370-vehicle fleet, said Keith Walling, fleet manager. Walling’s team plans for fluctuating gas prices in its two-year budget by researching cost estimates for “where the prices are going to go” over time, he said.
Up slightly from last biennium, the 2019-2020 budget is based on an average annual price per gallon of $3.70 to $3.80, Walling said. Despite the recent rise in prices, the city fleet budget is still in “pretty good shape” because of lower prices earlier this year, Walling said.
Cook said gas prices can very dramatically, and they can be difficult to predict. Prices have been “fairly steady” over the past four years, but “it takes just one or two things to happen in the world … and the whole system can be significantly impacted,” she said.
Unexpected price spikes in the past have been “a bit of a struggle for us,” Walling said, but the city is also taking steps to provide more stability in its budget. For example, its fleet includes vehicles that can run on propane, and propane prices tend to stay more level.
Nonetheless, fuel remains the “top cost” for the city’s fleet, Walling said, and estimating how much to spend on gas can be challenging because “nobody knows what will really happen.”
AAA reported Monday that “uncertainty abounds in the global crude market, keeping oil prices in a state of disarray” for the time being.
While the U.S. will not extend waivers to allow countries to continue purchasing oil from Iran, which could decrease global fuel supply, those sanctions have been partially offset by increased domestic production and declining crude prices, according to AAA.