Gas prices are out of sight. The governor is outraged. Consumers are up in arms. For much of the month, Utah has had among the highest pump prices in the country. We've even made California look cheap.

Meanwhile, spokesmen for the petroleum industry are holding their palms up and shrugging their shoulders like soccer players proclaiming their innocence.

So who's to blame?

Maybe it's capitalism.

That would seem to be the answer if you talk to Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for Utah's branch of AAA, the national automobile club. Her research indicates that Utah's higher-than-average summer gas prices are the rule rather than the exception — and that by wintertime Utah's prices should be lower-than-average.

"What's going on is not atypical. It isn't so much gouging as it is a decades-long trend," says Fairclough. "This is what seems to happen. If we don't get to the highest point, we get to the highest tier in the summer, and then in winter we're typically in the low tier.

"This isn't just for Utah, but also the Intermountain West," she adds.

Fairclough says that analysts at the Oil Price Information Service have explained to her that the Intermountain West has its own peculiar market-driven trends because of our relative isolation, increased mobility, higher demand in the summertime and low population.

Change comes slower out here in the wide-open spaces.

Annual analysis of gas prices in Utah show a roller coaster that hits its apex in July and August and its nadir in December and January.

Much of the time the fluctuations go unnoticed, but not this year with gas topping the $4-a-gallon barrier.

A year ago at this time, the national average for a gallon of unleaded gas was $2.75, and here in Utah it was $2.84 — 9 cents higher — and no one said a thing.

This year, though, different story, when the national average for unleaded is $3.76 and here in Utah it's $4.05 — 29 cents higher.

On a percentage basis, we've stayed about 8 percent above the national average this August compared to only about 4 percent last year.

"I do think there's some profit-making (going on)," says Fairclough. "That's why it's so important to shop around. Some stations are quicker than others to drop their prices, so my advice is, reward them with your business."

She also pulls out the AAA guidebook and advises keeping tires properly inflated — something that can improve fuel efficiency as much as 5 percent.

And oh yeah, don't run out of gas — it gets gunk in your tank besides greatly reducing your ability to get anywhere.

"We've seen a 3 percent increase this summer in people calling us who run out of fuel," she says. "That's happening (at AAA offices) everywhere. People are just straining to use the last drop before they fill up."

But there is good news. Not only is the price of gas declining — the current national unleaded average of $3.76 is 35 cents below the high of $4.11 established just a month ago on July 17, while Utah has gone down 17 cents from its high of $4.22 on July 18 — but it is projected to continue declining, at least for the short term.

"Projections show that the price should go down to as low as $3.65 later this fall," says Fairclough, providing the price of crude and demand both continue to decline. And it could drop lower than that by winter.

That means we'll hit $3.50 or lower here in the Beehive State when we get around to filling up the tanks in the snowblowers.

If not, get the governor back on the phone.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.