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Gas prices fuel grumbling

| September 7, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Gasoline prices are prompting lots of grumbling these days with the price of regular unleaded rising above $2.80 in Libby and diesel topping out at $3.01 last week.

Motorists sometimes saw fuel prices climb twice in the same day.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer pointed his finger at Montana oil refineries on Friday, urging them to stop gouging customers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Damage to oil production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico shouldn't be an excuse to increase gas prices 25 cents to 50 cents per gallon seemingly overnight, he said.

The governor noted that refineries in Billings, Laurel and Great Falls get their crude oil from Alberta, Wyoming and Montana. That gives them no reason to raise prices, Schweitzer said.

However, the owner of two Libby service stations said it's the New York City commodities market for crude oil that really affects gasoline prices nationwide, no matter where the refineries are located.

"Crude oil is a world commodity," said Rob Uithof, who owns the two SaveRite outlets in Libby. "It's all inter-related. The commodity pits in New York could see what was going to happen and they bid it (crude) up."

Higher crude prices translate to higher gasoline prices, he said, adding, "Crude oil just kept going up."

Uithof said his cost for gasoline from Missoula is currently $2.87, including 7.5 cents per gallon for transportation between there and Libby.

"We're only at $2.84 in Libby," he said of pump prices. "We're losing money, obviously."

Regular unleaded has sold for $3.05 per gallon lately in Spokane, he said.

The governor's pleas for restrained pricing probably won't have much effect, Uithof believes.

"You put it into a basket in New York City and you have all those people playing craps. So here we sit."

Meanwhile, owners of two Libby automobile dealerships say fuel prices still aren't prompting people to change their car-buying habits. There's been no significant switch toward smaller engines with increased fuel economy at either Cabinet Mountain Chevrolet or Timberline Auto Center.

"We've had a couple, but as far as people rushing down here, no," said Dick Hoyer of Cabinet Motors.

He mentioned one customer who earlier bought a full-sized truck at the dealership and recently bought a smaller car that gets 35 miles per gallon so he wouldn't be driving the truck so often.

What will it take to cause real change in car-buyers' habits?

"I think $3 gas might be a magical number. Now that it's threatening to go higher it definitely is the subject of the day."

Terry Andreessen of Timberline estimates that 10 percent of his customers are coming in asking about fuel efficiency.

"It hasn't been a huge movement yet," he said. "I think it's going to take $4 to $5 gas. People have to realize sooner or later that this country has to support itself and not depend on foreign oil."