‘Where’s the cheapest gas?’

Published 2:57 pm Monday, July 21, 2008

No one is immune from the pinch of higher gas prices, not even local gas stations. Those in Polk County are especially vulnerable, because they are in close competition with neighboring Landrum, where prices are sometimes considerably lower because of differing state gas taxes.

Because of their lower prices, some Landrum gas stations have been seeing a boom of business lately. In contrast, business has been slower at some stations in Polk County. Some store clerks say their wholesale prices for fuel are so high that the stations are barely making a profit. They say they are depending heavily lately on food and beer sales in order to make profits because of the slowdown in business and their rising costs.

Local Tryon and Columbus station managers and owners said one problem for them is that some drivers put only $5 or $10 of gas in their cars at their stations, enough to make it over the border at least to Landrum for cheaper gas. Some argue that by the time people drive from Tryon or Columbus to Landrum, the cost is going to be about equal, but many drivers disagree, especially owners of large trucks and SUVs.

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Stations near the I-26 interstate exit ramp in Landrum are seeing some of the busiest times this summer, with an Ingles clerk saying business is always constant.

Business is steady at all hours recently, said the Ingles clerk, with the majority of the station&squo;s customers coming either from interstate traffic or from North Carolina.

&dquo;North Carolina people refuse to pay North Carolina prices and I don&squo;t blame them,&dquo; she said.

A Texaco clerk in Columbus said she is seeing mostly people driving company vehicles filling up and many drivers putting small amounts in their vehicles, most likely to save the fill-up for South Carolina.

Other stations such as the BP near the Lake Lanier entrance just in North Carolina and the Royalty Food Store in Tryon say they are feeling the pinch.

BP owner Pat Batel said his obvious problem is that his station is just over the North Carolina line on Hwy. 176, and most drivers will bypass his station to drive just a couple of miles to the Hot Spot in Landrum, which has lower prices. At times recently there has been a difference of up to 30 cents per gallon&bsp; between Landrum and Tryon gas prices. On the day Batel was interviewed, his price in North Carolina was $4.09 while the Hot Spot&squo;s was $3.79 per gallon for regular unleaded.

Not all N.C. stations report slower business, however. A clerk at the Shell station in Columbus near the I-26 ramp said that lately he&squo;s seen steady business and as far as he can tell gas prices aren&squo;t hurting consumers.

One problem that is seen universally is the cost to gas stations for credit cards.

Batel said credit card companies charge the station 20 cents for a card swiped inside and 75 cents for a card swiped at the pump. In addition, the credit card companies charge between 1.9 percent and 3.28 percent of the total charge. On top of those charges, Batel said if a card is declined, the company charges 38 cents above the swipe charge, and he generally makes no gasoline sale for those charges.

&dquo;It&squo;s not easy,&dquo; said Batel. &dquo;That&squo;s why a lot of people (stations) charge more for credit cards.&dquo;

Neither Batel nor other local stations interviewed recently were charging more per gallon for credit cards, but many in South Carolina have started that practice.

A couple of weeks ago when regular unleaded gas was $4.09 per gallon in Tryon, the wholesale cost per gallon to the gas station owners was $3.9613, which means little profit for the stations.

Gas prices have been generally rising since around 2004. In 2001, gasoline was less than $2 per gallon, with the national average being $1.71. At the end of the summer of 2004, when prices usually drop somewhat for the fall, prices continued to rise, partially because of several hurricanes. Then in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, which came with a large increase in crude oil prices, gas prices soared to more than $3 per gallon.

Locally following Hurricane Katrina lines of drivers waiting to fill up extended into major highways. Some people even filled up 50-gallon barrels for fear of running out of gasoline. Prices settled slightly after climbing above the $3 per gallon mark, but they have been climbing atain recently, with the current average United States price for regular unleaded around $3.97, an all-time high.

Even with new ideas on energy and hybrids being rapidly produced, Americans are still heavily dependent on gasoline, especially in rural areas such as in the Upstate and the foothills, where cars are necessary for most residents because of the lack of 24-hour public transportation.

Americans drive nearly 3 trillion miles per year, according to the Motor and Equipment Manufacturer&squo;s Association.

Each barrel of oil contains 42 gallons (159 L), which yields 19 to 20 gallons (75 L) of gasoline.

The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil products per day, according to the Department of Energy. Almost half of that is used for motor gasoline, with the other half being used for distillate fuel oil, jet fuel, residual fuel and other purposes.&bsp;