As gas prices have risen, so has consumer anxiety. The average of $3.72 in metro Atlanta is a 17-cent increase from a week ago.
But the rise indicates a double-edged economic sword, said Patrick DeHaan, analyst for the website GasBuddy.
“Crude oil prices are up. The finger-pointing for prices can be directed at speculators due to a lot of positive sentiment in the (stock) market,” he said. “When traders and hedge fund managers and other market managers feel like the market is doing better, they’re more likely to invest in oil because demand goes up when the economy is better.”
And that increase in demand drives up the price of oil.
He said consumers can expect prices to continue to rise.
“I think over the next few weeks, prices will continue to inch up, but maybe not by leaps and bounds,” DeHaan said.
Gawking at the neighbors, Georgia appears worse off than most places. But compared to the national average, prices are lower.
“Georgia’s gas is more than some of their neighbors, but that’s because Georgia has higher combined gas taxes than all three of those neighboring states — North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama.”
In some markets in the Midwest — Chicago and Detroit — gas has gone up more than 64 cents during the same period.
Gregg Laskoski, also an analyst for GasBuddy, pointed to more nuanced factors.
“This time of the year, something that’s happening all across the country is that refineries are looking to shut down part of their operation — making winter blend gasoline — for a period when they can conduct scheduled maintenance. Once the maintenance is completed, they can start summer blend production,” he said.
The federal mandate was created in 2000 to promote cleaner fuel.
“It drives prices higher every spring. This year is just a more condensed period in which we’ve seen these price increases,” Laskoski said.
The increased prices are problematic for consumers who already have tightened their budgets, DeHaan said.
“For some people that don’t have jobs, they’re already cutting back. They’re probably not consuming a whole lot right now,” DeHaan said. “It’s not like it’s the time of year yet when they’re using it for their boats out on Lake Lanier. This is the time of year when for most people, it’s commuting to work and running errands — not a whole lot of places you can cut.”
He said lowering demand would be most apt to lower prices.
“If you I and the rest of our nation cut our demand in half, or by 10 percent, we would consume 10 percent less, supply would begin to swell immediately, and prices would come down.”
But barring a sudden, sweeping change in national demand, what’s the average consumer to do? Think like an economist, Laskoski said.
“Maybe on a 30-minute commute to work each day, you’re inclined to fill up at the station right before the highway. That isn’t necessarily a smart economic decision, because it might be high-priced gas. If consumers use websites like (gasbuddy.com), they’ll be able to identify (the) lowest price ZIP code.” he said. “It’s all about habits. It’s difficult for consumers to change their habits. If they’re commuting to work, maybe they don’t have access to mass transit. But advice that we would suggest is to think about things that they do and the habits that they form.”
And it’s not a mere nickel-and-dime difference, he emphasized.
“If you’re driving in an affluent neighborhood, that’s what the local market will bear. We’ve seen differences of $3.49 vs. $3.99 a gallon in Atlanta. That’s a significant gap,” he said.
Vehicle care is key as well, he said.
“Maintain the vehicle to maximize fuel efficiency. (Keep) tires inflated to (the) level recommended by (the) manufacturer. When tires are underinflated by just a few pounds, you’re losing 2 percent fuel economy for every pound. That’s not something you’re going to eyeball. You have to have a tire gauge and really check it and measure each tire,” he said. “Five pounds under could be 10 percent of your fuel economy. So a car that normally gets 20 mpg would be getting 18 mpg.”
Another tip he added was keeping heavy clutter out of cars.
“Don’t let your car become a mobile storage unit. A lot of people tend to keep useless junk in the trunk. You don’t need golf clubs in the trunk on a Tuesday going to work,” he said. “These are little things, but they’re just so easy to ignore.”