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Rising gas prices spark panic in the US: ‘It’s crazy’

The cost of fuel continues to increase due to inflation and the war in Ukraine. Drivers are now spending up to $6 for a gallon, compared to $2.25 in 2019

A gas station in Malibu, California
A gas station in Malibu, California.DPA vía Europa Press (Europa Press)

As the cost of gas continues to rise in the United States, drivers in Los Angeles – the driver capital of the country – are becoming increasingly panicked. Last week, the price neared $8 a gallon at many gas stations in the city. While the price hikes stalled over the weekend, the situation continues to concern drivers, whose wallets have been hit hard by weeks of inflationary pressure and Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

“It’s crazy,” says Beth Rooney, a 26-year-old designer at Culver City gas station, where the cost of a gallon reached $6 on Friday. “Luckily, I can continue working from home, but many of my friends have returned to the office, only to see their salaries disappear [on fuel]. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make ends meet.” According to Rooney, just a few weeks ago, it cost 30% less to fill up her tank.

The rise in fuel prices is coinciding with the return to normality following coronavirus restrictions. While some people can continue to work remotely, millions more have returned to the office in California, which was one of the last US states to relax its Covid-19 prevention measures. California has lived with a chronic drought for decades, but in recent weeks there has been widespread unease over the most vital liquid for the functioning of the state: gasoline.

Joel, a 32-year-old Salvadoran gardener, is struggling to cope with the high prices in Los Angeles, a city where the average car drives 21 miles (34 kilometers) a day. A few days ago, he was at a gas station in the Castle Heights neighborhood, in the center of the city, where he had traveled to for work. There, the cost of a gallon was less than $6. “I was lucky because I work here and I don’t have to drive around to find cheaper prices. As they say, when God shuts a door, He always opens a window,” he says, laughing. He becomes serious though when he admits he is close to asking his clients for more money, and is concerned he might lose work if his prices go up. “It’s a difficult situation, and we don’t know when it will be solved,” he says.

The war in Ukraine is roiling an already tight global oil market and making it hard to determine if we are near a peak for pump prices, or if they keep grinding higher
Andrew Gross, AAA spokesperson

The American Automobile Association (AAA), which monitors the cost of fuel nationally, says that it doesn’t yet know when the crisis, which has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will begin to ease. “The cost of oil accounts for about 50% of what drivers pay at the pump,” says Andrew Gross, AAA spokesperson. “This war is roiling an already tight global oil market and making it hard to determine if we are near a peak for pump prices, or if they keep grinding higher. It all depends on the direction of oil prices.”

US President Joe Biden said last week that the conflict in Ukraine was going to have an impact on fuel prices. “Defending freedom will have costs for us,” he said after announcing that the US would suspend all gas and oil exports from Russia in retaliation for the country’s invasion of Ukraine. This move has compounded the inflationary pressures the US has been facing the past year. The rate of inflation is now close to 8%, the highest figure in 40 years.

On Monday, the average cost of a gallon was $4.32, up 26 cents from last week and a rise of $1.46 since 2021. In January 2019, the average cost of a gallon was $2.25. The state of Utah has seen prices spike by 50 cents in just a week, while in Arizona, they rose by 48 cents.

The situation is of concern to many politicians. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, which has the most expensive gas prices in the country ($5.74 a gallon), said recently that his government is studying contingency plans. One idea is to cut a state tax that adds 51 cents to the cost of a gallon. This tariff, the highest in the US, was approved by the Democrats in 2017. Most of the money raised by the tax, which will amount to around $8 billion this year, goes toward road and street maintenance in the cities. The state government is considering axing the tax, but fears that gas stations – not the consumer – will benefit most from the move.

The high cost of gas is even leading to crime. On Monday, the Los Angeles police department warned drivers to watch out for gas thieves, with reports that some criminals were drilling into the gas tanks of parked cars to steal fuel.

In Houston, a gang of thieves stole more than a thousand gallons of fuel from an underground storage tank. Last week, on Long Beach, in the south of Los Angeles, a man was arrested after paying $20 for fuel, when in reality he had forced the valve open to fill two large tanks which were hidden in a construction truck. The AAA believes that these incidents are likely to increase in the coming weeks, with prices set to continue to rise.

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