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Originally published May 14, 2012 at 9:23 PM | Page modified May 15, 2012 at 1:48 PM

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Drivers fill up with pain as state gas prices soar

Regular self-serve gasoline in Washington was selling Monday for an average $4.20 — more than 47 cents higher than the national average, according to the AAA auto club.

Seattle Times business reporter

U.S. averageper gallon

Monday

$3.727

Week ago

$3.777

Month ago

$3.970

Washingtonaverage

Monday

$4.201

Week ago

$4.076

Month ago

$4.131

Source: AAA

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Like a wrong-way driver, it's something you hate to see: While the national average price for gasoline has dropped 5 cents a gallon over the past week, Washington state drivers have been hit with an increase of 12.5 cents.

Largely fueled by the aftermath of a fire at Washington's biggest refinery, in Whatcom County, and scheduled maintenance at other West Coast refineries, the discrepancy may continue until midsummer, observers said.

Regular self-serve gasoline in Washington was selling Monday for an average $4.20 — more than 47 cents higher than the national average, according to the AAA auto club. That gap has more than doubled in the past month.

Nationally, gasoline prices were lower than year-earlier levels for the fourth consecutive week as crude-oil futures tumbled to the lowest level in almost five months, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Monday in its weekly retail report.

"The West Coast is zigging while the rest of the country is zagging," said Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

Michelle Perrigo, who works as an academic editor and receptionist in Seattle, said using grocers' rewards programs is one way she's been keeping down her spending on gas.

"We just do the best we can to get gas when it's cheap and try not to overdo it," Perrigo said. "I don't run the air conditioning, things like that ... anything to be conservative."

Dave Overstreet, a spokesman for AAA, said the West Coast refinery issues have brought the region's gasoline inventories to their lowest levels for the month of May since 1992.

That is "putting pressure on gasoline prices that we really didn't anticipate," he said.

BP's Cherry Point refinery in Whatcom County has been out of commission since a fire Feb. 17. An attempt to restart the refinery last week failed, according to a person familiar with the effort. BP says it will try to start it up again this week.

The refinery is the largest of five in Washington and the third largest on the West Coast, with the capacity to turn 225,000 barrels of crude oil a day into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Each barrel of crude oil produces approximately 19 gallons of gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This means Cherry Point under normal operation would refine enough oil daily for approximately 4,275,000 gallons of motor fuel.

The Cherry Point refinery typically produces about 20 percent of the state's gasoline needs and supplies the majority of jet fuel for Seattle-Tacoma, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., airports.

Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, said the company is "working around the clock to safely return the refinery back as soon as possible."

After the February fire, the company decided to move forward with planned maintenance ahead of schedule and combine it with the needed repairs, Dean said. He said the refinery has drawn on fuel in the Cherry Point reserves and other BP sources to supply fuel while repairs were completed.

But the shutdown isn't the sole reason behind the spike in gas prices, said Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, an association of independent motor-fuel dealers.

"Cherry Point was a visible instance ... but it wasn't Cherry Point that put us where we are," he said.

Many Washington residents don't understand that the West Coast gasoline market is isolated from the rest of the country — meaning decreases in gas costs elsewhere won't have an effect here. As a result, only four states — Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska — have experienced price increases in the past month, said AAA's Overstreet, citing Energy Department data.

During the seasonal maintenance of Western refineries, inventories of gasoline and diesel have proved insufficient, causing oil companies to raise prices in efforts to curb consumer demand, Hamilton said. Prices won't see a break until supply levels are restored, he said.

Relief isn't likely to come soon, Hamilton said. He expects prices to continue to climb until around Memorial Day, predicting they will start declining after the Fourth of July.

In the past week, while Washington's pump prices increased an average of 12.5 cents per gallon, wholesale prices soared 24.4 cents, Hamilton said.

That means prices are expected to increase by an additional 12 cents per gallon in the next week, he added.

"If (wholesale prices keep) going up, we're going to keep going up," he said. "Gravity only works one way. ... It gets sticky going down."

Darin Leonardson, a corporate chef who lives in Everett, said he, too, has made adjustments to where he purchases his gasoline and how much he buys.

"I would never fill up, I would just put in what would get me from A to B," he said. "You don't have the luxury of 'Oh, let's just fill up.' I'm constantly living paycheck to paycheck anyway. ... It's been hard."

But Leonardson said he believes an upcoming move will help ease the pressure on his wallet.

"I'm moving to Texas," he said, "so hopefully it will be less expensive there."

Information from Seattle Times archives and Times news services is included in this report.

Erin Flemming: 206-464-2718 or eflemming@seattletimes.com.

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