Holiday driving is still painful at the gas pump

As Americans prepare for Thanksgiving, the odds are higher than ever that anyone who is traveling will be on the road. Holiday air travel is expected to be down 6 percent, while something like the usual number of travelers will take to their cars, according to AAA auto club projections.

Amid a whole range of travel changes, though, Northwest drivers can count on one thing staying the same. We will pay more for gasoline than drivers in other parts of the country.

It is a reality that can be explained in part by geography. We don’t have the oil pipelines and easy access to domestic supplies that many parts of the country enjoy. But there’s also an economic aspect. Competition among oil companies is notably less in Pacific Northwest and along the entire West Coast. As a result, motorists here consistently pay higher prices than elsewhere.

In many states, the cost for unleaded regular has dipped below $1 a gallon. The national average has fallen to $1.17. Locally, the average price remains just over $1.50 per gallon.

That’s not to say there isn’t good news for motorists as they head over the trestle and through the mountains to Grandma’s house. The current price is a good 20 cents less than it was last Thanksgiving in the Puget Sound metro area. Around the state, gas prices have fallen even more, with an average of $1.44 for unleaded regular.

That will be some economic solace for those traveling good distances.

For the country, lack of competition may be a spreading problem if federal regulators aren’t careful. A new oil-industry merger plan would combine the Phillips Petroleum Co. and Conoco, forming a new giant. Although the companies have good reasons to operate on a scale of the largest oil firms, the Federal Trade Commission should go as far as possible to make sure that the merger is structured in ways that preserve competition at the retail level.

We in the Pacific Northwest know too much about what happens — and who pays — when competition becomes constrained. We can only hope that, somehow, our higher prices eventually attract more of the competition that the rest of the nation is accustomed to enjoying.

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