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Pump It Up

Gasoline prices vary as much as $10 a fill-up, station to station. Blame big oil, the government and/or consumer indifference. AT THE BUSY INTERSECTION of Garnet Avenue and Ingraham Street in Pacific Beach is a Chevron gas station that sees a steady stream of motorists gassing up, even though pump prices tend to be higher than just about anywhere else in San Diego County. On this day, a gallon of regular sells for $2.87. Just four blocks away, at an Arco, a gallon of regular can be had for $2.49.

Filling his tank under the awning at the Chevron station, Steve Woostern isn’t aware of that fact. “I usually just get it when it’s convenient and there happens to be a station in front of me,” he says. “I’m sure there are cheaper stations close by, but 38 cents? That surprises me.”

He doesn’t drive off, however. He continues pumping until his tank is full.

It’s no secret gasoline prices vary widely, but in these days of escalating fuel costs, the disparity has grown to record heights—as much as 40 cents a gallon, or $10 for a typical 25-gallon SUV fill-up.

Why the variance? Watchdogs blame the big oil companies for not only keeping prices high but also for identifying areas, or “zones,” that might support higher prices. Ever wonder why the Shell station at Pacific Highway and Laurel Street typically charges 20 cents a gallon more than the Chevron station just a couple of blocks south on Pacific Highway? The Shell is right across from the airport, and right next to several rental car lots. Consumers who need a quick fill-up before returning their rentals are easy marks.

Charles Langley, gasoline analyst at the San Diego civic watchdog Utility Consumers’ Action Network, describes the market as an “oiligarchy,” where strategies such as hoarding and zone pricing have consumers “bent over an oil barrel without much of a choice.”

Zone pricing adds complications. To consumers it may look like collusion, but in 2003 the U.S. Senate recognized zone pricing as a marketing practice in which refineries set prices in separate areas based on competition, traffic counts and other factors. Instead of letting the free market determine the price in less-competitive or highly trafficked areas, branded oil companies reap the benefits through zone pricing.

“The effect is that you get gas-price ‘ghettos,’ where prices can be as much as 20 cents a gallon higher in a particular neighborhood simply because all the major refineries have zoned that area at a higher rate,” Langley says. “They [branded companies] can signal each other through zone pricing as to what their next move in the market is going to be.

“The only thing consumers can do right now is protect themselves,” he says. “Generally, it’s worth driving 5 to 7 miles to save 5 to 10 cents a gallon.”

Joe Randazzo, owner of the Pacific Beach Chevron with the pricey pumps, bristles at any suggestion he’s taking advantage of motorists’ yen for convenience.

“Chevron is the top gas in the country, so it should demand a higher price,” he says.

If that’s not enough, he’s got another answer: “I have to keep a margin. If I operate at a very cheap margin, I can’t make ends meet—there’s no way.”

He has his own explanation for the escalating price of gas, in general. Is the culprit the big oil companies? No way. “If the environmentalists and the government would stay out of this,” Randazzo maintains, “we could sell our gas so much cheaper—you wouldn’t believe it.”

—J. MAURY HARRIS

Highs & Lows

PUMP PRICES VARY SIGNIFICANTLY, depending on where you shop. Here are three highs and lows, all recorded on the same day and posted on UCAN’s consumer watchdog Web site (fueltracker.com).

Highest Retail Gas Prices in San Diego

Coronado Unocal 76 at Ninth & Orange: $2.99
Pacific Beach Chevron at Garnet & Ingraham: $2.90
Vista Shell at Melrose & Highway 78: $2.83

Lowest Retail Gas Prices in San Diego

Chula Vista Arco at East Main & Broadway: $2.43
Chula Vista Arco at Third Avenue & Main: $2.43
Escondido Union 76 at El Norte Parkway & Nordhal: $2.43

Rush Limbaugh Can Eat Cake

AN ENTREPRENEURIAL TRIO of San Diego students is turning conventional AM radio on its talking head with a new approach to politics targeting Generation Y.

John Fiske, a second-year student at California Western School of Law, conceived the show, Death and Taxes——a moniker inspired by the famous Ben Franklin quote——and invited two longtime friends, Kris White and Brent Williams (both San Diego State University students), to join him at the microphone. They hope to coax their peers into the current political dialogue through cloak-and-dagger-style entertainment consisting of wit, panache and pop culture references.

Fiske compares the show’s merger of entertainment and politics to college students debating issues at a keg party. The trio says that, unlike mainstream media, the show frames political and social issues to their generation without furthering a particular agenda.

Streaming at KCRlive.com, Fiske and sidekicks urge Gen Yers to “call in, and help screw up [their] own future!” But don’t label them disillusioned. Without expressed concern, they say, Gen Y has no clout in any political argument.

Death and Taxes airs Wednesdays, 8-10 p.m., and Sundays, 6-8 p.m. Podcasts are available at deathandtaxeskcr.com.

—J. MAURY HARRIS
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