Gas prices are continuing to drop -- 20 cents a gallon cheaper than in the beginning of May -- but what we're getting at the pump is in question in some places.
Contaminated fuel -- which can foul an engine -- was the subject of a warning in Ohio recently. And the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection is reporting an increase in reports from drivers there having problems with contaminated gas.
"Consumers should be watchful for sudden performance problems with their vehicles -- especially problems that occur immediately after buying fuel," Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett said in a statement. Problems with contaminated fuel are "relatively rare" but consumers should have their cars checked out if they suspect that is a cause of performance issues.
An inspection in Massachusetts, on the other hand, had more encouraging results for consumers. The state's Division of Standards checked 237 gas stations to see if the gas contained the octane the stations claimed. All but one met or exceeded what was listed on the pumps, the state said. The Quik+ Variety station in Attleboro, Mass. failed the check and was fined $375 after records showed about 218 gallons of regular 87 octane fuel was mixed with premium fuel -- reducing the 93 octane to 90.8 octane, officials said.
Not every state tests gas quality. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Alaska have no regulations on that at all, said Medina County, Ohio, Auditor Michael E. Kovack, who put out a consumers' alert recently about bad gasoline. A sample bought at a gas station there had water, sludge, rust and diesel fuel in it. He is pushing for state legislation that would allow for testing gas quality.
The American Petroleum Institute says there are 17 different blends of gasoline sold around the country to comply with regional and state air quality regulations. Federal laws govern the quality of gasoline too. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has proposed changes to its Fuel Rating Rule including that gasoline-ethanol blends with between 10% and 70% ethanol be added to the list of fuels that must be rated, certified and labeled by sellers.
The regional variations (and taxes, of course) among the reasons for the wide range of gas prices from region to region. The national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is $2.73 today, down two cents from Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report. The states with the highest average prices continue to be the West Coast, New York and parts of the upper Midwest, with prices ranging from $2.87 to $3.53 a gallon. Alaska has the highest average price in the country.
Consumers could see prices dip slightly lower over the next week to 10 days, AAA national spokesman Troy Green tells Consumer Ally. A longer-term prediction is not possible because of variables in the marketplace tied to the economy, world events and the price of oil.
"There's a chance that we'll see the national average go down to $2.70 a gallon, but then we'll just have to see what happens," he says. Typically gas prices climb in the spring as demand increases and as refineries switch over to summer fuel blends that are more expensive to produce. Another price peak historically comes at the end of July and the beginning of August -- the two months that have Americans driving the most miles as people take summer vacations. After Labor Day prices typically start to decline again.
Green says that when economies are strengthening, demand for oil goes up. But world events like Greece's debt crisis and the weak Euro have so far kept oil prices down, although those prices are starting to creep up. Consumer demand has also been flat.
"(Investors) are betting the economy has turned around and demand has picked up," he says. "We're not there yet."
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