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Gas prices on the rise

by Matt Harvey

ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- When gas hit $1.75 last summer, Chad Weaver's full-size pickup went on the market.

Weaver, of Monongah, drove a 1980 Ford F350 then. He drives a 1992 Geo Metro now. Regrets? Sure, he has a few.

"It's a big difference," he acknowledges. "But I like not putting all the gas in the truck, too. It's freed up a lot of money right there."

Weaver isn't the only one feeling the pinch. Prices in our region are averaging $1.653 for a gallon of unleaded, self-serve gasoline, according to the latest Fuel Gauge report from AAA West Penn/West Virginia/South Central Ohio.

And on Thursday, the price spiked to $1.85 per gallon self-serve unleaded at several gas stations around the area. It's starting to look like the Federal Trade Commission's warning of prices at or over $2 this summer soon could be a reality in North Central West Virginia.

Supply vs. demand

Wayne Northey is West Virginia regional president for AAA. He's based in Bridgeport.

From his office Thursday, he could see gas advertised at $1.58 a gallon. That's cheap -- comparatively. Not to the $1.25-per-gallon price of a year or two ago. But certainly to what most stations in the area are charging now.

"It seems like in our area the service stations at the Meadowbrook (Interstate 79) exit have as low of prices as you have in the area," Northey said. "They're usually 5 to 8 cents cheaper than at the Fairmont exits. Who can explain that?"

It's a good question. The answer: Maybe nobody.

The Federal Trade Commission has a theory on gas pricing. Vice President Dick Cheney has a theory. Service station companies have theories. Consumers have theories. Environmentalists have theories.

Northey, too, has a theory.

"I don't think there's any question that gasoline prices are going to increase," he said. "Part of it is a supply issue and part of it is the demand."

Americans, he said, are using up gas faster than it can be supplied. That's because there are many big vehicles on the road and not very many carpools, he said. And so far, AAA hasn't seen members cutting back on trip plans, Northey said.

Northey recalls "the real serious gasoline crunch" in the 1970s. Some states rationed gas, he said.

"After that we started to see a swing to smaller cars, more economical vehicles," he said. "We've lost that in the past 20 years. What used to be the muscle cars of the '60s are now the SUVs of the 20th century."

Chuck Rice is spokesman for Rich Oil in Findlay, Ohio.

He sees the equation basically like this: Not enough pipelines + not enough refineries = high prices at the pump.

"The system's very fragile. ... The bottom line is if a refinery goes down and it impacts supply, prices are going to go up," Rice said. "It's that tight."

Area service station owners and operators, meanwhile, insist they make little if any profit off gasoline sales.

'That's ridiculous'

As pump prices flare up, for whatever reason, skepticism also rises.

Charles Helmick is co-owner of Buckhannon Stockyards.

When asked about gas prices, he has a simple answer: "That's ridiculous, ain't it?"

Fairmont's Beverly Soisson wasn't there to hear Helmick's answer. But she responded just about the same. "I think the prices are ridiculous," she said. "They are awfully high."

Impact on the economy

Helmick sells livestock at his stockyards off U.S. Route 33 west of Buckhannon. He can remember gas at 30 cents a gallon, though he doesn't remember exactly when that was. "It's been a long while ago," Helmick said.

Customers sometimes ask Helmick and co-owner Sam Garrett to haul the animals they buy at stockyard sales.

Customers didn't like paying a delivery fee before, Helmick said. They like it even less now that the fee has increased because of gasoline prices, he said.

Judie Brown owns O Suzannas Florist outside Weston, also on U.S. Route 33. She said she didn't charge a delivery fee when gas prices were cheaper.

Now, she must. That, she said, hurts business.

Also, customers who pay more for gas will have less for luxuries like flowers, she said.

Weaver is an associate pastor for Swisher Hill Union Mission between Worthington and Monongah on U.S. Route 19. He's also the service writer for Chip's Auto Repair in Fairmont. And, he has 14 head of cattle.

In other words, he travels a lot.

"I've had days to put 200 miles on a car," he said. "That would be two tanks of gas on a truck."

Weaver still wishes he had his F350. It would help in his cattle business. And just about anyone who's ridden high in a full-size pickup knows it's tough to go back to a vehicle that's so close to the ground.

Still, "gas prices just got to the point where I couldn't hardly afford to buy food to put in my house," he said.

What's to come?

Bevi Norris of AAA West Penn/West Virginia/South Central Ohio said it's impossible to project where gasoline prices will go this summer.

But $2 is a possibility here, she said.

And at $1.85, even before peak travel starts, it seems like a pretty good possibility.

It might not matter much to Fairmont's Soisson. Her trips usually are just to church or the store, she said. And her car gets decent fuel economy, she said.

But her boyfriend already is griping. He has a gas-guzzling truck, she said.

Northey acknowledges it's tough to find the cheapest gasoline at a specific time.

But stations that keep the prices lower surely draw a crowd. Floral shop owner Brown, for one, is on the lookout for a bargain.

"Weston's always 10 to 25 cents higher than Clarksburg," she said. "I don't know what the difference is. But definitely when I go that way, I fill up my van."

There may be, as Weaver points out, some positives to come from all this.

For instance, trucks, sports utilities and "muscle" cars might sell cheaper soon.

"If the gas price hits $2 a gallon, I don't know how anybody can afford to put gas in one," Weaver said. "It just costs too much money."

Assistant Managing Editor Matt Harvey can be reached at 626-1032 or by e-mail at mharvey@exponent-telegram.com.

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