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Gas prices to climb after refinery fire

Fuel truck Driver Terry Lappolis of Henner Tank Lines of Winters, decouples gas lines at a Union 76 Station on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa on Tuesday.

KENT PORTER/The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 6:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 9:52 a.m.

Resignation mixed with resentment Tuesday at gasoline pumps across Sonoma County over forecasts that a Bay Area refinery fire could drive fuel back over $4 a gallon.

"Seems like it's one thing or another," said Sam Wright of Santa Rosa, after pumping more than $50 worth of gas into his Ford Explorer. "Can't say I'm surprised."

"What can you do?" shrugged Christina Heraty of Santa Rosa, who put $17 worth into her Toyota Corolla, also at the Arco Station at Brookwood Avenue and Fourth Street.

Regular gas there was $3.70 a gallon, well below the Santa Rosa average of $3.84 posted Tuesday at the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, which uses an average of the three preceding days.

The prospect of returning to the $4 range irked Ben Stanley of Santa Rosa, even though he drives a Toyota Prius hybrid that gets better than 40 mpg.

"It sucks. That's it," Stanley said. "I'm so sick of it."

Stanley, who said he believes gas prices are manipulated, also decried the global consumption of fossil fuels.

"We're just spewing carbon into the atmosphere day and night," he said.

Analysts were quoted Tuesday predicting $4 a gallon on the West Coast in the wake of a Monday night fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

"It'll be up over $4 by the end of the day and $4.50 by Labor Day," said Bob van der Valk, a petroleum pricing analyst in Terry, Mont.

Denton Cinquegrana at the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey said California could "get back to the $4 area probably within the next week or so."

Gas fell below $4 in Santa Rosa in mid-June, giving motorists a break near the start of the summer driving season.

Tuesday's $3.84 price in Santa Rosa was up 12 cents over the past month, according to the AAA report.

Some experts urged caution, noting that the impact of the Richmond fire was not clear and that a run on gasoline purchases by an anxious public could by itself drive up prices at the pump.

"Murky at best," said Rob Schlichting of the California Energy Commission, assessing the price outlook.

Wholesale gas prices bumped up Tuesday morning, but Schlichting said it is "hard to say how big a hit the (retail) market will take."

Some of the analysts predicting a price spike may be people who profit from such an outcome, he suggested.

A Chevron spokesman declined to comment on what impact the fire might have on the gasoline market.

Cynthia Harris, an AAA Northern California spokeswoman, said there could be a price rise in the next 48 hours. Prices have been creeping up in recent weeks, she said, due to increased summertime travel and tension in the Middle East.

The appearance of a hurricane off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Tuesday could also push up prices due to a possible impact on Gulf Coast refinery production, Harris said.

The best course, she said, is "to sit back and wait." Gasoline price volatility "is something we live with," Harris said.

Stanley drove away from the Arco station after pumping just $20 worth of gas into his car, powered by both a gas engine and a battery.

"That should last the rest of the week," he said.

But Stanley noted that hybrid drivers are not home free. He said he paid $3,888 to replace the battery in his 2002 Prius.

Press Democrat news services contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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