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Chicago Area Gas Prices Come in Like a Lion, But Will Go Out Like a Lamb?

By Mike Brockway | March 5, 2013 8:33am
 Local experts believe high gas prices have peaked and there's relief in sight for drivers.
Local experts believe high gas prices have peaked and there's relief in sight for drivers.
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CHICAGO — Chicago-area drivers are experiencing historically high pump prices for the start of March, but relief is on the way, according to AAA.

"Gas prices rose almost every day last month," AAA spokeswoman Beth Mosher said. "We're seeing some of the highest prices for March — ever."

AAA's Fuel Gauge Report shows city gas pumps sporting an average price of $4.22 for a gallon of regular unleaded.

That's up 26 cents from a month ago, and 60 cents a gallon more expensive than January's prices.

February ended the month a quarter per gallon higher than last February —  a potentially ominous sign considering fuel prices tend to peak in late March or early April.

ChicagoGasPrices.com, a website which tracks fuel prices for Chicago and the suburbs, has average gas prices at $4.05 a gallon 20 cents higher than ago, but nearly a whopping 70 cents a gallon than just six weeks ago.

AAA blames the abnormally high prices on local refinery production issues and higher oil prices.

“This is primarily due to a decline in refinery production and as there is still maintenance to be done before the Midwest shifts to a summer blend of gasoline, motorists are likely to face continued high prices,” said Mosher. "Refineries are switching over [to the summer blend] a little bit earlier than usual."

Chicago area gas stations are compelled by the EPA to sell a reformulated summer blend of gasoline that is considered to be easier on the environment. Local gas stations must sell the reformulated summer fuel from June 1 through Sept. 15. This special gas blend is more costly for local refineries to produce and thus motorists see a higher price at the pump, especially during the transition from winter to summer blends.

Historically, the price spikes associated with transitioning to summer blend fuels begin at the end of March or beginning of April, and with greater demand due to the summer travel season, pump prices stay high until after July 4.

Patrick DeHaan, the petroleum analyst and spokesman for GasBuddy.com has a different theory on why gas prices here in Chicago and nationwide are so high.

"This time around it seems like [oil] speculation is to blame," says DeHaan, arguing the increased demand for crude oil futures has subsequently driven up gas prices. "It's a trickle down effect. But the trickle down here is that we all get screwed at the pump."

According to both Mosher and DeHaan, relief from high gas prices is on the way and 2013's prices will not be a replay of last year's painful, record breaking fuel prices. At the end of March last year, the average cost of a gallon of gas hit a record $4.68, according to AAA.

"Keep in mind, prices have been dropping for the last week or so," says DeHaan. "I don't think we're in danger of seeing last year's highs. They [prices] may get close. But probably not. The odds of new highs are less than one in 10."

Mosher is even more confident than DeHaan that we won't repeat last year's pain at the pump.

"No. We don't believe we'll see record highs this year," said Mosher. "We think overall this year we'll have tamer prices. Motorists in every state are paying more at the pump than one month ago. However, many drivers are beginning to feel some welcome relief. With 'spot' gasoline prices dropping dramatically across the country it is likely that retail prices will continue to fall in the coming days."