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Gas relief elusive
Motorists adjust as prices inch higher
Jonnie Brown pumps gas March 8 at RaceTrac in Cumming. As gas prices continue to rise, people are trying to find other ways to save money. - photo by Autumn McBride

John Moss drives about 300 miles a week for his job.

Lucky for him his Alpharetta-based employer picks up that tab.

“It’s bad now, but there’s not a lot you can do about it,” said Moss on a recent afternoon as he was filling up his work truck at RaceTrac on Hwy. 20. “We just try to schedule more [jobs] in the same area.”

At an average of about $3.45 per gallon for regular unleaded across Georgia, and no relief in sight, everyone seems to be filling the pinch.

Jonnie Brown said she “shortens her trips to the grocery store” when gas prices are as high as they have been, and she doesn’t let her teenage daughter drive.

“We just stay home more when gas is this high,” she said. “And we wait on things like extras for the house.”

Spencer Cramer, an ice cream shop employee and Lanier Technical College student, called the prices “ridiculous.”

“I try to catch rides with friends whenever I can, and I don’t think this tank has been full in months,” he said. “Twenty dollars is my limit and right now I don’t think that’s even half a tank.”

Given the current situation, Cramer’s tank likely won’t reach full any time soon.

According to reports from AAA Auto Club South, retail gas prices will continue to rise in Georgia until they hit at or above $3.50 a gallon.

The state’s average price of $3.45 reflects an increase of about 17 cents from last week. At this time last year, the price was about $2.66 a gallon.

Timothy May, head of the department of history and philosophy at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, said the high prices stem mostly from unstable conditions in the Middle East.

“It has a lot to do with fear,” he said. “Fear of what could happen [in the Middle East].”

Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, agreed.

“A lot of this high cost is related to speculation around the Mideast,” he said. “Until the Mideast calms down and much of that speculation goes away, we won’t know what gas prices are going to do.”

May said gasoline prices don’t usually rise without an increase in the cost of crude oil, which according to AAA closed at nearly $105 per barrel last week.

That’s the highest mark since September 2008, the last time it closed at more than $100 per barrel.

Rising crude prices have much to do with the fighting in Libya.

“There’s a lot of fear that what’s happening in Libya could spread to other oil producers like Saudi Arabia,” May said.

He said Libya produces “sweet crude oil,” which is of higher quality than the crude produced in other countries such as Saudi Arabia.

The sweet crude is used by many nations in Europe.

“Southern Europe gets most of its oil from Libya,” May said. “A decrease in the flow of oil from Libya means southern Europe has to find more oil from another source.”

May explained those nations then cut into oil supplies that would typically go to the United States or China, which leads to higher prices.

When that happens, Tudor said, retailers and customers alike must pay more.

He added that contrary to what many customers may think, retailers don’t have much control over gas prices.

“Retailers have less control over [gas prices] than anybody,” said Tudor, noting that the cost of crude determines what oil companies such as Exxon and Chevron charge pump owners.

When prices rise, he said retailers are actually hurt because they have to pay more up front.

Tudor explained that retailers buy about 9,000 to 10,000 gallons of gas at a time, so even a 10-cent-per-gallon increase can have a big impact.

“At 10 cents a gallon more, when you buy 9,000 gallons, that’s $900 more,” Tudor said.

Aggravating the situation, when gas prices soar, people typically spend less on extra items, which is how most stores make the majority of their profits.

“The reality is people only have so much money,” he said. “When people have to spend more on gas, they’re not going to have the money for a lot of those extras like candy or soda.

“Whether it’s a convenience store, restaurant, pizza place or theater, all those types of places suffer when gas goes up.”

That’s the main way Cramer and Brown make room in their wallets for higher gas prices.

“I’ve definitely cut out going out on weekends,” Cramer said.

Added Brown: “We do eat at home more now.”

Is there any relief in sight?

“No one can put a date on it,” May said. “Until stability returns to the [Middle East] region, there’ll still be fear.”

But he said things may be improving somewhat.

He noted that Egypt “looks pretty good” now, despite civil unrest a few weeks ago.

“Egypt is a major conduit for oil,” May said. “That had a lot to do with [high gas prices]. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s a better situation now than it was.

“Hopefully, things in Libya will quiet down and prices might come down.”

He said suppliers in other countries may increase their crude output, which could also help.

“OPEC has been in talks,” he said. “If that happens, it will definitely help our price situation.”