More gas pains
Despite diesel and other fuel prices on an upward swing, local township officials have been hitting the roads for days, trying to keep them clear of ice and snow.
A week ago, Decatur Township Trustee Terry Welch was seeing diesel priced at $3.899 a gallon in the Belpre area. Now, it’s $4.199 at some stations.
“It just puts another crunch on us,” he said of the township, which has an annual budget of about $280,000.
But when it comes to keeping the roads as clear as possible, townships don’t have a lot of options, Fearing Township Trustee Allen Miller said.
“We’ll make adjustments as the year goes forward,” he said.
Non-diesel fuel has been even more volatile of late, with the average price across Ohio rising 40 cents a gallon in the last month, said Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst for the gasoline-pricing website www.gasbuddy.com. And Tuesday’s average Marietta-area price of $3.599 a gallon is up more than 30 cents from a month ago, said Bevi Powell, vice president of community relations at AAA East Central.
“(Tuesday’s) price is the highest it’s ever been for this calendar day” in Marietta, she said.
There are a variety of factors at play.
For regular gasoline, the time of year for the federally mandated switch to cleaner-burning, and more expensive, summer-blend fuel is approaching, Laskoski said. Because they are completely different formulas, refineries must use up the winter blend, flush the systems and perform maintenance. Given the age of most refineries, that usually uncovers other issues that need to be addressed, limiting capacity, Laskoski said.
At the same time, demand for diesel and heating oil is increasing, contributing to the rising cost there, he said.
Both forms of fuel are affected by the price of crude oil, which had risen to around $97 a barrel Tuesday thanks to tensions in the Middle East and the weakening of the U.S. dollar, Laskoski said. The dollar is the primary unit used in crude oil transactions, he said.
“If we keep seeing the weakening of the dollar and the rising price of crude, it could push prices even higher,” Laskoski said.
Powell said $4-a-gallon gas does not seem outside the realm of possibility by summer, when more people are driving and the summer blend is in use.
While diesel used to cost less than regular fuel, that changed a while back when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enacted new regulations to cut down on diesel’s sulfur content, Laskoski said.
“It used to be very cheap to produce diesel, but the EPA increased the cost,” he said.
All of Salem Township’s vehicles – a road grader, two trucks and a tractor – run on diesel, township fiscal officer Marcella Fleming said.
“It’s not unlikely to receive a $7,000 bill for them to fill that fuel tank on the hill,” she said.
At least that was done before the most recent jump, Trustee Dennis Lang said.
“Thank God we bought 500-gallon tanks. Save us ’til it runs out,” he said.
Lang said the township tries to conserve when it can but hasn’t had many options during the recent snowfall.
“We worked all day (Monday) to get the roads cleared, and then it snowed again and was worse than it was before,” he said Tuesday morning before heading back out to spread cinders.
Newport Township Trustee Rodney King said the township has little choice with fuel costs but to “eat it up.”
“There’s nothing really that we can cut,” he said, pointing to services like clearing roads in the winter and mowing, ditching and hauling gravel in the summer. “You just got to plug along and hope it (doesn’t) get any worse.”
King is grateful that the Washington County Commission increased the share of the 1 percent permissive sales tax going to township road projects, even as the township faces rising costs for fuel.
“So you get it in one hand and kind of toss it out with the other,” he said.
Rising fuel prices don’t just affect the cost of what goes into township vehicles, said Welch, from Decatur Township. The price to get cinders for road treatment was $12 a ton two years ago, but recently the township paid $20 a ton, as the supplier passed on delivery costs from higher fuel prices.
“Everybody just passes the price on down,” Welch said. “We try not to spend a lot of money out here. We don’t get a lot of money.”