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Pandemic gas prices are over, as Orange County residents report feeling squeezed at the pump

A Chevron station on the corner of Legion Street and Coast Highway in Laguna Beach on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Pandemic gas prices, and the savings drivers reaped while people limited travel, are officially over in Orange County, where the average cost of a gallon of regular-unleaded rose this week to $3.80 — the highest price recorded since Thanksgiving 2019.

“We’re paying so much more in California compared to other states — we’re being cheated,” said Laguna Beach resident Kim Thacker, who was gassing up her 2004 Porsche SUV Monday afternoon at the Shell station on Coast Highway near Legion Street.

“Prices were OK for a while; now they’re back up in Orange County,” she continued. “I was just in Bishop, [Calif.] and it was like a dollar less [per gallon].”

Pump hawks with the Automobile Club of Southern California in a regional “gas watch” report Monday said prices have been on the rise throughout the county for 28 days straight, amounting to an increase of more than 58 cents since Jan. 5.

The current average per-gallon cost stands about 23 cents higher than the $3.47 Orange County drivers were paying on March 8, 2020 and $1.03 more the pandemic low price point of $2.77 per gallon recorded on May 7 of last year, according to AAA figures.

A van is fueled up at a Shell station in Laguna Beach on Monday.
A van is fueled up at a Shell station on the corner of Legion Street and Coast Highway in Laguna Beach on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I don’t know that we got a huge price decline during the pandemic, but we certainly got some prices well under $3 per gallon,” Auto Club spokeswoman Marie Montgomery said Monday. “It wasn’t until around the first of [this] year that it really started climbing.”

Montgomery said the hike could be attributed to the reintroduction of costlier “summer blend” gasoline, a cleaner-burning fuel California stations are required to provide from April through October, and higher overall demand as more people return to pre-pandemic driving habits.

Orange County trends showed a decline of about 20 cents per gallon in mid-March 2020, immediately following a statewide stay-at-home order issued at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prices that had begun to decline weeks before the shutdown continued on a downward trajectory until mid-May and then evened out, hovering around $3.15 to $3.21 per gallon, as refineries adjusted their supplies to meet the market, Montgomery said.

A slight dip, to $3.11 per gallon, was noted in early November, but pump prices soon after began to tick upward as more people traveled throughout the Thanksgiving holiday.

Recent winter storms impacting commerce in Texas, a major supplier of gasoline, led to a subsequent fuel shortage in Arizona that caused California refineries to temporarily commit more of their own resources out of state, Montgomery added.

In a fuel prices report last week, Auto Club spokesman Jeffrey Spring predicted prices would likely continue to rise as more Californians received the COVID-19 vaccine and began resuming work and travel schedules.

“The temporary supply squeeze at the end of February due to a gasoline shortage in Arizona is winding down,” Spring said. “However, investment in California gasoline futures remains strong in anticipation of increased demand when more of the population is vaccinated.”

Feeling pressed at the pump, Thacker said she’ll be on the lookout for cheaper prices in her own travels outside of Orange County.

“If I’m going on a road trip or far away, I’ll fill up at stations I know are a lot cheaper,” she said. “It sucks when we’re forced to pay these prices.”

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