In California, $2.20 gas crimps car culture

A switch to an environmentally friendly fuel is impacting lifestyles in a state full of drivers.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After paying $2.20 for gas in the San Francisco Bay area, student Chelsea Tamulevich has decided not to visit her parents as much. It isn't that she doesn't like her mother's cooking or the opportunity for a free laundry service. It's that Tamulevich's car, even though a fuel-stingy Honda Civic, costs twice as much to fill up now as it did a year ago, and she doesn't have the money to make the 500-mile round trip commute from San Luis Obispo, where she goes to college. "Judging by this last trip, I think I'm going to have to not go as often," she says.

Tamulevich's decision to forgo some of her trips home symbolizes how many Californians are changing their lifestyles, in ways both subtle and significant, in the face of the highest gasoline prices in US history.

While energy prices have jumped nationwide in the run-up to war, nowhere are they more expensive than in the Golden State, the unofficial car capital of the world. If you were to suddenly plunk down in Los Angeles, you might think it was Amsterdam or Paris, except for all the spandex and mini-malls: Prices are now high enough - $2.10 a gallon on average - that they are approaching European levels. Nationally on Tuesday, the average gas price was $1.70.

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For Homa Atash, a retiree living on fixed income, the price hike hasn't stopped her from filling her spotless Mercedes with premium gasoline, which was running $2.25 a gallon at a busy Chevron station in San Luis Obispo on Monday.

"In order to keep my car maintained, I have to buy expensive gas," she says, polishing her car windows with a rag.

Ms. Atash says she typically comes into San Luis Obispo from Los Osos, 10 miles away, three times a week to run errands and visit her daughter. But now that gas is so expensive, she is reconsidering how often she will drive into town.

Lifestyle changes

Indeed, small adjustments to driving routines are typical when gas prices reach new highs. But wholesale changes, such as taking public transportation or carpooling, are rare here.

"Some people will start consolidating their trips, for example doing several errands at once rather than making random trips," says Ron Cogan, editor of the Green Car Journal, an industry publication based in San Luis Obispo. "Others will cut out nonessential local trips."

In California that might mean forgoing a drive to pick up an afternoon coffee at Starbucks but not weekly trips to the nail salon.

Janet Hiller has certainly noticed how the price boards outside gas stations seem to change their numbers faster than a scoreboard at a Lakers game with Kobe off the bench.

The correctional officer at the county jail in San Luis Obispo raised her teenage son's allowance from $30 to $40 a week so he could afford to drive to school in his minivan. "His costs have gone up considerably," she says.

Isolated state

California has always had its own rules when it comes to the economics of gasoline.

For starters, consumers have always had to pay higher state and local taxes on gas. Mainly though, production costs are higher here. Most of the state's supplies come from refineries in the West because of California's strict environmental rules on gasoline inputs.

Analysts say that it's a new state requirement, coinciding with supply shocks in the petroleum market, that has caused the sudden spike in prices at the pump in California. Refineries in the state are in the process of switching from fuel that is oxygenated by Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether (MTBE) to fuel oxygenated by ethanol.

"The whole process of changing over for a different formulation is extremely expensive for the industry, and it takes time to pull it off," says Mr. Cogan.

The result will be a cleaner-burning gasoline that won't find it's way into groundwater. But the regulations do mean that the state is unable to tap into gas supplies elsewhere in the nation because of different refining standards.

Other factors are at work too.

The impending war with Iraq is certainly contributing to high gas prices nationwide. Additionally, the petroleum workers' strike in Venezuela - one of the top ten crude oil producers in the world - and the cold winter on the East Coast have had a significant impact on gas prices.

"Refineries are either making home-heating oil or gasoline, but they're not making both," says Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "Typically they are making home-heating oil in the winter, and the harsh winter we've had has forced refineries to make home-heating oil for longer than they have in the past, and that has hurt the gasoline supply."

But drivers in the Golden state may have to wait a while yet for relief when they fill up.

"Regardless of strikes, war, or the cold, gas goes up in the summer," says AAA spokeswoman Cynthia Harris. "Summer gas is more expensive than winter gas because it has more additives."

Businesses feel the pinch

That's not good news for Dan Routt, moving-department head at Meathead Movers in San Luis Obispo (the company name is a tad misleading, it employs students as movers and packers).

Mr. Routt is counting on gas prices eventually returning to normal since his company, which has nine diesel-powered trucks, must accept what the prices are at the pump without passing them on to clients. "We know that ... our great economy will come back to where it should be and gas prices will be affordable," he says. "We've got to keep plugging ahead regardless."

But other companies are already charging their customers more - especially small businesses with smaller profit margins. Steve Sheetz, a window cleaner from San Luis Obispo whose Nissan Rodeo is loaded with ladders and cleaning supplies, certainly jokes that he'll raise his rates to compensate for the higher gas prices.

"This is tax time, so I'm trying to cut back," he says as he buys $21 worth of gas at $2.06 a gallon. "Right now I just don't have the money to fill all the way up."

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