WASHINGTON – Chris Remuzzi shoots guns for a living, but it’s the price he pays for gas that kills him.
A full tank of gas usually costs the professional paintballer $55, but at a Chevron station in Hyattsville Thursday, it took almost $80 to fill his SUV.
“I think it’s a little ridiculous that (oil companies) are jacking up the price before the war even happens,” Remuzzi said.
After two months of steep increases, gas prices reached record highs Thursday for the month of February, averaging $1.665 per gallon of regular unleaded nationwide and $1.67 in Maryland, according to AAA, the motorist club. Those prices are just a few cents short of the highest-ever national average, $1.71, recorded on May 15, 2001.
Oil companies are blaming cold weather, oil worker strikkes abroad and a possible war with Iraq. Consumer groups, however, say those are just handy excuses for oil companies seeking higher profits.
“Right now, the consumers are paying for a lot of speculation,” said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for AAA. “You have prices based on what people think might happen rather than what is happening. We hope the industry would show some restraint and think about the consumer.”
Oil companies, however, have defended their pricing.
“Every time we have a crisis and prices go up, we get complaints and conspiracy theories,” said Juan Palomo, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. “What we have here is the market at work.”
Palomo and most oil analysts attribute rising prices to three main factors.
A colder winter this year has caused companies to make more heating oil than gasoline, and U.S. oil supplies are strained after a 78-day oil workers strike in Venezuela, which provides 9 percent of this country’s daily oil consumption. The most contentious reason, however, is the fear of war with Iraq, which would destabilize the Middle East and endanger almost a third of the world’s oil supply.
Doug MacIntire, an oil market analyst for the U.S. Department of Energy, believes those are all valid reasons.
“Of course companies are always trying to maximize their profits, but there’s a lot you can attribute a lot to these international situations,” he said.
The last great oil crisis occurred after similar conflicts in the Middle East — the Iranian revolution and an Iran-Iraq war in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If adjusted for inflation, gas prices during those times would be the equivalent of $2.80 per gallon today.
An oil crisis of the same proportion could happen again in the near future, experts say.
“Right now we’re seeing really low crude oil inventories,” MacIntire said. “That just sets the stage for some really big problems if a war happens and supply can’t meet demand.”
Even if the nation doesn’t go to war, the prices still might go up.
“If we’re seeing high prices in February when it’s usually low, it’s going to be crazy this summer, when prices usually shoot up,” said Jason Toews, who has monitored gas prices for more than three years on his web site, www.marylandgasprices.com.
And consumers are clearly concerned, said Toews. He saw a record 500,000 hits last week on his web site, which helps consumers shop for the best gas prices.
“It seems like prices will go up no matter what,” he said. “I’d hate to see what happens if we go to war.”
At the Chevron station, Remuzzi shrugged as he shelled out $80 for gas. He suspects he’ll be paying a lot more next week, while driving to a paintball tournament in Toronto.
“I’m not for the war, and I’m not against it,” he said. “But I am against these companies jacking up the price of gas again.”
The AAA said motorists should keep their tires properly inflated to cut fuel consumption, carpool or take public transportation, and aggressively shop for lower gas prices.
James Mooney said he already shops aggressively for cheap gas for his Hyattsville to Washington, D.C., commute. But after shelling out $5 more than he expected at a College Park gas station this week, he shrugged in resignation.
“There’s not a whole lot I can do about it,” he said. “If you have to drive, you have to drive.”