ST. LOUIS — The good news for Missouri motorists: Gasoline prices here are the second-lowest in the nation.
The bad news: They’re still high, and it’s going to get worse once the summer travel season rolls around.
AAA Auto Club’s online Fuel Gauge Report shows the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded was at $3.25 nationally on Wednesday. The Missouri average was $3.04. Only New Jersey, at $3.02, was lower.
But Mike Right of AAA’s St. Louis office said the survey was taken before St. Louis-area stations saw a significant Wednesday spike of about 11 cents per gallon, to $3.10. AAA’s survey around Missouri showed most towns had prices above $3 per gallon.
It’s still a bargain by comparison. The average price in the state of Washington was $3.50. It was $3.59 in California. Even in states neighboring Missouri, prices were sharply higher, most markedly in Illinois, with an average price per gallon of $3.31. Kansas was at $3.17, Arkansas at $3.16, Iowa at $3.18.
“I guess that’s some consolation anyway,” Right said.
Ron Leone, director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, said individual service station owners can do little to offset the price.
“Three main factors make up 90 to 95 percent of the cost: crude oil, refining and state and federal taxes,” Leone said. “Right now you’re seeing the cost of crude as the biggest reason prices are rising at the pump.”
The price of crude oil has escalated to around $109 per barrel. Right noted that a year ago, a barrel of crude oil was about $58. At this time last year, Missourians were paying $2.39 per gallon. As recently as a month ago, the average price in the state was $2.80, according to AAA’s Web site.
Eric Wittenauer, energy futures analyst for Wachovia, said gasoline prices would be even higher if not for flat demand.
“That’s reflective of the cyclical downturn in the economy, and consumers changing their driving patterns and behavior,” Wittenauer said. “Public rider transportation is at all-time highs. Prius outsold Ford Explorer last year. That’s indicative of the shift in behavior from consumers.”
Right also believes that people are driving less, a trend that could continue through the summer travel season.
“Last year we noticed decreases in the vehicle miles per travel,” he said. “I think people are indeed trying to reduce their consumption.”
Still, both Right and Wittenauer expect gasoline prices to go even higher as the warmer weather arrives and demand increases as people go on trips. The highest-ever gasoline costs in Missouri were reached last May when prices spiked as high as $3.30 per gallon in Kansas City and St. Joseph.
Right expects that record to be topped, probably this May, but neither he nor Wittenauer expects to see $4 per gallon — at least not in Missouri.
“Inventories remain high in terms of gasoline stockpiles and demand numbers are weak,” Wittenauer said. “I do not look for prices to get to $4 per gallon (in Missouri), but certainly in other parts of the country.”
Diesel prices may get there, though, a huge burden for truckers and others. The average price for a gallon of diesel on Wednesday was at an all-time high of $3.71 in Missouri. A month ago, the price was $3.19 and a year ago, $2.60.
Wittenauer said diesel fuel supplies are tighter than those for gasoline and he expects prices to continue to rise.