Drivers, businesses keep eye on rising gas prices

2011-03-02T15:37:00Z 2011-03-04T07:47:51Z Drivers, businesses keep eye on rising gas pricesBy Ryan Denham | rdenham@pantagraph.com pantagraph.com

BLOOMINGTON -- Frank Farley's mail pickup and processing company, Quicksilver, saw its fuel costs rise about $60,000 in 2008, when summer gasoline prices climbed above $4 per gallon in Central Illinois.

So with the average price today closer to $3.50, Farley said he's not terribly concerned about his 17-vehicle fleet at Springfield-based Quicksilver, which serves Twin City business clients. In mid-2008, he didn't have to make adjustments that hurt clients because just months later the stock market collapsed and gas prices plunged.

"If it goes to $6 per gallon, that would be panicking," Farley said. "At $4, we just start moaning about it."

Oil prices settled above $102 per barrel Wednesday for the first time since September 2008 as fighting escalated in Libya, a major oil exporter, and petroleum demand grew in the U.S. At most Twin City gas stations, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded has climbed to $3.49 in recent days, up from about $3.23 a month ago and $2.69 a year ago.

The rising costs have rekindled memories of the 2008 spike and raised concerns that sustained high levels could pinch off the fragile economic recovery. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tried to calm those fears Monday, when he told lawmakers gas prices "do not yet pose a significant risk" to the recovery or inflation.

Oil prices have soared nearly $17 per barrel since the Libyan uprising began in mid-February. Libya has been embroiled in a civil war that has shut down oil production in many parts of the country.

Tom Aranowski of Bloomington, who was pumping $3.49 gas at a Qik-n-EZ station in Normal Wednesday, lamented the ripple effect of unrest halfway around the world before chalking it up to "free enterprise."

Aranowski said he was only putting $20 in his tank in the hopes prices would fall today and he could top off. He said he may skip eating out here or there if gas stays high, but nothing dramatic.

"We just have to buckle down," he said. "We have to drive."

At Image Air, which sells fuel to private and commercial aircraft at Central Illinois Regional Airport, customers have griped but not scaled back their flying dramatically like in 2008, said General Manager Dale Kruse.

Then, a gallon of 100LL -- used in smaller aircraft -- jumped to $6.34, he said. Today, it's back down to $5.65, but the 50-cent increase since October still means about $50 extra to fill up a plane with a 100-gallon tank.

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association on Wednesday cut its forecasts for 2011 global airline profits because of the recent surge in crude oil prices. Fuel is almost 40 percent of an airline's operating costs.

CIRA spokesman Fran Strebing said she's noticed a jump in airfares in her weekly checks the last few months. She recalled how the 2008 fuel-cost spike helped lead to the implementation of bag fees and other add-ons.

"It'll show up somewhere," she said.

When the recession cut into demand and $2.50 gas returned, Americans took a false "sigh of relief," said Don Fullerton, professor of finance with the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. But $2.50 a gallon is still high, and it was just a matter of time before prices rose again, he said.

Fullerton said he doesn't think high gas prices would "kill" the recovery, but he said now's the time for government to take proactive steps to encourage alternatives, such as electric car technology research.

When asked what consumers should watch for in the developments from Libya, Fullerton remarked:

"You should be looking at the price of a hybrid, that's what you should be looking at."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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