Rising gas prices likely to linger

High gasoline prices usually fade away as children settle into their school day routines, gray skies return and nights get downright chilly.

But entering this weekend, the average price for a gallon of gasoline locally is higher than during Labor Day weekend, which traditionally marks the end of the summer road-trip season.

And experts are forecasting the cost of driving — and heating for those with oil-burning furnaces — aren’t likely to go down much this autumn and winter.

The average for regular unleaded fuel in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area was nearly $2.96 a gallon Friday, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report. That’s 17 cents above a month ago, and 27 cents above the price a year ago.

The number of service stations charging above the $3-per-gallon mark has multiplied in the past two weeks. On Friday, one Union 76 in Lake Stevens was charging just below $3.10 a gallon. “Probably what we’re seeing is the effect of crude oil prices. Lately, they’ve been setting records,” said Frank Holmes, Northwest manager for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Crude oil — the basic ingredient for gasoline, heating oil and other fuel products — rose to just under $84 a barrel on Sept. 20, the highest price ever on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Since then, traders have kept it closer to $80 a barrel.

Relatively low inventories of gasoline, still-growing demand around the world and the seasonal shift for refineries from summer to winter blends of fuel aren’t helping with prices, either, said Janet Ray, AAA’s regional spokeswoman.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, said crude oil prices may well set more records in the coming weeks. Then he foresees a slow, gradual fall in prices as the end of the year approaches.

That doesn’t mean gasoline will get cheap, however. Kloza’s predicting this winter’s low price for gasoline could easily be the “highest low” consumers have ever seen.

Last year, fuel prices bottomed out around Snohomish County at about $2.20 a gallon before starting to rise uncharacteristically around Christmastime.

High crude prices won’t just keep gasoline prices relatively strong. Users of diesel and heating oil are likely to pay a high price, too.

Even when gasoline fell to well under $3 a gallon, diesel prices have stayed high all summer. As of Friday, the regional average for diesel was still at $3.20 a gallon, according to AAA.

Heating oil is also in that price neighborhood.

Dan Knelleken, general manager of Sound Oil Co., said the retail price of heating oil was stable for months at $3 a gallon. In the past 10 days, however, it’s moved up. Sound Oil now is charging about $3.20 a gallon, which is pretty typical for this region, he said.

“Hopefully, it’s not going to go too crazy this winter.”

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or fetters@heraldnet.com.

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