Like the backup quarterback who leads his team to victory after the starter busts a knee, a Utah motorist can make the most of an opportunity created by others' misfortune.

Unstable Asian markets and El Nino's fury have made life difficult for people elsewhere but have helped keep gasoline prices across the Salt Lake Valley as low as they've been in years.That doesn't mean you should feel guilty when filling up for 97.9 cents a gallon - the going rate for unleaded regular at several Redwood Road stations Monday.

But you should be aware that:

- Your wallet is heavier because people just like you, halfway around the world, have less money to spend on gasoline due to sudden slowdowns in their national economies.

- You're spending less on gas in Utah because the weather has been so bad in California that many people are staying home, assuming their homes haven't slid down a hill.

- An unusually warm winter has been good for many Midwesterners, but their demand for heating oil has been low.

Refineries, then, are producing more gasoline than heating oil but with less demand for the gas. That leads to lower prices here and across the country.

You should be aware of all this because, well, there's a good chance the economic and climatic trends will continue. And if they do, you could spend a lot less on gasoline this summer than you did a year ago - despite the 5-cent increase in the state's per-gallon gasoline tax, which took effect last July.

"I thought we'd never see prices below $1.19 again and here we did in the last month," said Thomas Brill, economist for the Utah Office of Energy and Resource Planning. "We've been unusually blessed with low prices.

"Our understanding is there is a lot of momentum built into the refineries' production process and they can't change it overnight. They have been producing at high levels and storing high levels of both crude oil and refined motor gasoline, and that is good news for the summer."

It's been good news for the winter, too. The average per-gallon price for unleaded regular in Salt Lake County this February was $1.08 a gallon, according to surveys conducted by Brill's office. A year ago, the average price for February was $1.23. If the 5-cent increase in gas tax is figured in, that's a 20-cent, per-gallon reduction compared to 1997.

Lee Peacock, executive director of the Utah Petroleum Association, said some retailers have sold unleaded for as little as 92.9 cents a gallon in recent weeks.

"Like any product in the marketplace, it goes down until people buy it. I'm not sure how it could go any lower," said Peacock, adding that every gallon sold in Utah is taxed 42.8 cents.

The average price for unleaded last week was just $1.07 a gallon, according to Brill's office. But that's an average. Many stations across the valley sell it for much less.

A midday Monday cruise down Redwood Road from Salt Lake City to South Jordan revealed unleaded-regular prices between 97.9 cents and $1.04.9. A journey back up the valley on 700 East, however, yielded a range of between $1.01.9 and $1.13.9.

"I suspect prices will go up as you get into the summer driving season and that puts extra pressure on the demand side," said Gerry Tedrow, executive director of the Western Petroleum Marketers Association. "But unless (the supply of) crude changes, I don't expect them to go up a whole lot."

Brill said prices usually jump about a nickel or dime around the Memorial Day holiday but can level off or drop back down between peak periods.

The long-term trend is favorable, too. Peacock said more oil fields throughout the world are now in production, reducing the world's dependence on the Mideast. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently increased its production as well.


Additional Information

Gas prices

Salt Lake county 1997-98

Self-service, unleaded regular

1997 1998

Jan. $1.20 Jan. $1.17

Feb. 1.23 Feb. 1.08

Mar. 1.19 Mar. 1.07**

Apr. 1.28

May 1.29

Jun. 1.24

Jul. 1.24*

Aug. 1.30

Sep. 1.30

Oct. 1.28

Nov. 1.26

Dec. 1.23

* Gasoline tax increase of 5 cents per gallon

** First week average

Source: Utah Office of Energy and Resource Planning