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California hit by spiking gasoline prices. Why? And when will they slow down?

Motorists sound off about rising gas prices at the pump

Gas prices at the pump are rising drastically. Motorists at the Chevron station at Cedar and Kings Canyon voice their opinion. Ruben Martinez said he filled up his 1962 pickup two weeks ago for $25. Today it cost him $43.
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Gas prices at the pump are rising drastically. Motorists at the Chevron station at Cedar and Kings Canyon voice their opinion. Ruben Martinez said he filled up his 1962 pickup two weeks ago for $25. Today it cost him $43.

Oil refinery maintenance in California is being blamed for rising gas prices that have surged by an average of at least 20 cents per gallon in the Valley in just one week.

The average price of regular unleaded gasoline in Fresno on Thursday was $3.83 per gallon, according to the AAA Gas Price report. That was up by almost five cents from Wednesday’s average, and 23 cents per gallon higher than the April 4 average. A month ago, the average price was $3.23 per gallon – nearly 60 cents lower than on Thursday.

The highest average gas prices in the central San Joaquin Valley were reported in Merced, where AAA reported $3.86 per gallon.

The statewide average price for regular unleaded was a few cents higher than in the Valley, at $3.91 per gallon. The nationwide average on Thursday was $2.78 per gallon.

“We are way over the price where we would be if not for these refinery issues,” said Michael Blasky, a spokesman for AAA Northern California. “Typically we pay 70 cents to a dollar more than the national average. This is a pretty far outlier.”

And the increasing pain at the pump isn’t likely to abate anytime soon, experts say. “I would predict that we’re going to be looking at a $4 average (statewide) probably in the next few days,” Blasky said.

“We are in the middle of pretty exceptional refinery maintenance,” said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy.com. “In addition to that, we’re in the midst of several unplanned outages that are causing the supply to tighten noticeably.”

That’s not much comfort to customers who were fueling up at a Valero gas station at Blackstone and McKinley avenues in central Fresno on Thursday.

Larry Meza of Fresno pulled up to the pump to fill a one-gallon gas can and was dismayed that it cost $4. “It’s going crazy,” he said. Meza said he tries to look around at different stations to find the best price, but it’s getting more and more challenging.

On the other side of the pumps, Clovis resident Betty Torres was counting the bills in her wallet to figure out how much she could spend before going into the store to pay for gas.

“I haven’t seen the prices this high in a long time. … It’s really stressful,” Torres said. “I’ve been doing a lot of driving lately, taking my grandson to school, driving myself to school, going to work, and all these trips are costing me more now.”

“When I was driving today, I saw $3.69 at one station on Belmont Avneue, and then down the street it was $3.89. It’s all over the place,” she added. “It’s hard because people don’t understand why the prices are so high.”

Both analysts said refineries are in the process of changing their plants over for production of summer-blend fuels, both nationwide and in California.

Summer blends have higher oxygen content and evaporate less readily in fuel tanks, but California has more stringent standards. DeHaan referred to a California Energy Commission update reporting that refinery production of fuel for California motorists last week was down 10 percent from a week earlier.

Stockpiles of California-specific fuel, DeHaan added, were down 8 percent from a week prior and 19.3 percent below year-ago levels.

Flooding in the Midwest is adding to the problems, DeHaan said, because it has slowed down rail shipments of ethanol, “and ethanol is blended into almost every gallon of retail gasoline” in California.

Blasky said the refinery slowdowns are affecting companies in both northern and southern California, and added that a seasonal increase in demand for gasoline is adding another layer of stress on fuel supplies. “This is typically the time when we see the highest gas prices of the year, April, May, June and the summer travel season,” he said. “There’s not an easy solution for this. As demand picks up, it’s only going to drive the prices higher.”

DeHaan said he is hopeful that prices may stabilize or even start to come down this summer. “After the refinery issues level off, maybe in May, we may start to see some measure of relief,” he said.

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.


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