Why gas prices are so high in California

One in five Californians is expected to travel 50 miles or more this Thanksgiving

New York Times

For so many of us, the upcoming holiday season offers a moment of normalcy in what has been a long and lonely pandemic.

With the protection of COVID-19 vaccines, extended families are planning to reunite after being apart for months, if not years. Couples are meeting their in-laws for the first time, as well as their siblings’ new babies.

One in five Californians is expected to travel 50 miles or more this Thanksgiving, a major jump from the depths of the pandemic last year, according to American Automobile Association.

But over the past few weeks, those dreamy itineraries have been complicated by soaring fuel prices.

In California, the average cost of a gallon of gas is $4.71, the highest in the nation. A few weeks ago, the prices here broke a record that was set in 2012 and have only continued to inch up since.

The coronavirus deserves much of the blame. Gas production fell when demand plummeted last year amid stay-at-home orders, and it has not caught up as commuters and tourists return.

Nationwide, the average cost of a gallon of fuel is $3.41, compared with $2.11 at the same time last year. In other words, our much-anticipated road trips have gotten roughly 50% more expensive.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story about Americans who are canceling vacations and rejiggering their budgets to cope with pain at the pump.

Kellen Browning, a New York Times reporter based in San Francisco, interviewed drivers in the city’s NoPa neighborhood who were lined up at an Arco charging $4.49 a gallon. In other parts of the city, prices have reached as high as $5.85.

Bay Area residents told Browning they had started targeting certain gas stations to try to save a few bucks, or filled up small amounts at a time to soften the blow to their bank accounts.

Browning himself avoids filling gas in The City when he can. He knows there are cheaper stations along I-80 on the way to Davis, where he often travels to visit his family.

“I try to time it so that my tank is close to empty near one of those places,” he said. “When my colleagues on the East Coast were reporting on people’s frustration with gas prices that were between $3.50 and $4, that sounded like an absolute steal.”

Last week, President Joe Biden asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether oil and gas companies were engaging in “illegal conduct” that was driving up prices.

On Tuesday, working in concert with five other countries, Biden ordered the release of oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile, according to senior administration officials.

The U.S. will tap into 50 million barrels of crude in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Britain, China, India, Japan and Korea will also open up their oil reserves in an effort to combat soaring global prices on oil.

The decision was a way for the president to show the administration’s focus on rising gas prices, which have stoked anxiety among Americans amid declining approval numbers for the administration.

But it remains unclear if it will have much impact on the price of oil. Traders had been expecting a larger release of as much as 100 million barrels, said Richard Bronze, head of geopolitics at Energy Aspects, a market research firm in London.

Here in California, hefty taxes have long made gas prices the highest in the nation. But fuel got even more expensive after an atmospheric storm pummeled Northern California last month.

The heavy rains inundated oil refineries with water, which affected gas production in the region, The Los Angeles Times reported. The subsequent cost increases then trickled south to the rest of the state.

Browning said some Californians he spoke to said the high gas prices had made them more willing to buy electric cars. Others said it had persuaded them to do all their holiday shopping online.

Some blamed Gov. Gavin Newsom, OPEC, inflation or Biden for their significantly lighter wallets after filling up their tanks.

“But overall, I would say the theme was a general resigned frustration and confusion about why they had to pay so much,” Browning said. “At this point, if I can find gas under $4.50 per gallon, I think of it as a good deal, sadly.”

Soumya Karlamangla, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Stanley Reed contributed to this article.

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