Experience told Robert Hutter that Iraq’s blitzkrieg attack on Kuwait last week was going to translate into higher prices at the corner service station.
But he was not quite prepared for the price tag confronting him Saturday as he steered his car into a Chevron station in Huntington Beach.
Prices already had jumped a nickel Wednesday, the day the state’s new gas tax went into effect, and the Iraqi invasion had led wholesalers to charge their dealers an extra five cents per gallon. The invasion-related increase began showing up at the pump Saturday, and consumers throughout the county joined some consumer groups and politicians in grumbling about price-gouging by oil companies.
“Greedy people are just looking for a buck,” a resigned Hutter, 25, said as he pumped unleaded gasoline--for which he paid $1.21 per gallon. “I guess you can’t just say, ‘No, I won’t drive.”
Like hundreds of thousands of other motorists, Hutter took advantage of a beautiful, sunny Saturday to hit the streets, but lamented the high price he was paying for the tankful of fuel. The week’s price hikes came to as much as 14 cents at some stations, though the average was closer to a dime, service station owners said.
Faced with those increases, frustrated motorists throughout Orange County took a grin-and-bear-it attitude--but wondered aloud if oil companies were not taking advantage of the Persian Gulf crisis to hit drivers with a hike in gasoline prices.
“I definitely think it’s gouging,” said Dennis Pecha, 52, of Yorba Linda as he put a few dollars of unleaded gasoline into his pickup truck at a Mobil station in Costa Mesa. “They always find some reason; they have some excuse.”
Hutter agreed. “It’s interesting that one day Kuwait gets invaded,” he said, “the next day gas goes up. I think they (oil companies) are taking advantage of a nasty situation.”
With ample reserves to fall back on, the cutoff of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil supplies did not spur the shortages and lines that formed in the wake of the two 1970s gas crises, when drivers waited for hours to purchase gasoline. The gas crisis then prompted many consumers to stockpile fuel in garages and makeshift tanks.
But while the lines failed to materialize, there was no lack of grumbling on Saturday from customers smarting over the price jump.
Salesman Jeffrey Brown, 25, of Newport Beach said he logs more than 30,000 miles on his car each year, adding that his job will be directly affected by the increase.
Even those who travel less said it will take some time before they stop feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks.
“I have to watch my budget more now, with gas increases like this,” said 21-year-old Diana Meridan, who just returned from a trip to Arizona only to find that gasoline was 12 cents higher at her local gas station than it was a week ago.
Many service station owners, who acknowledged that they had been listening to the unhappy customers all morning, blamed their suppliers for Saturday’s increases and complained that the wholesale price hikes may have been premature.
Doug Wilkes, 38, who owns a Shell station at the corner of Bristol Street and Warner Avenue, has raised the price of unleaded gasoline to $1.23 from $1.12 a week ago.
Like other franchised dealers, he said he had no choice when he raised pump prices, adding that he was not making any profit as a result of the new tax and the wholesale price increase.
“There shouldn’t have been any reason for the increase,” Wilkes said. “I’ll be interested to see what happens after this. (Suppliers) don’t beat you with a stick. They just browbeat you.”
Wilkes, who weathered the 1973 and 1979 gas crises, said that during the past decade, public perceptions have changed because of low prices. In 1980, he said, he was selling a gallon of unleaded gasoline for 3 more cents than he was charging on Saturday.