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A refined mess at the pumps

AAA: Decreases in refinery outputs cause spikes in local gas prices

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STERLING – Mary Stewart watched the cost rise Thursday as she filled up the tank of her Buick Lucerne with 15.4 gallons of gasoline.

"Sixty-five dollars," the 80-year-old Sterling woman said, holding the pump at the Super Pantry station in Sterling. "No need to cry about it."

Stewart, who was on her way to Indiana, said it seems like gas prices rise every time she wants to go somewhere in the summer, but she tries not to let it bother her because "you can't go far without it."

But, she did believe the price was the highest she had ever paid for gasoline, and it was not even for a full tank, she said.

Stewart was one of many people in the Sauk Valley who have noticed a rise in gas prices over the past few days.

Most stations in Sterling and Rock Falls charged $4.19 a gallon Thursday, while most in Dixon were charging $3.99. Area prices were about $3.89 earlier in the week.

The average price for a gallon in Illinois on Thursday was $4.151, higher than in all other states except Hawaii and Michigan, according to AAA.

The state's average jumped 7 cents from Wednesday and 17 cents in the past week.

The national average price Thursday for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.630.

Beth Mosher, a spokeswoman for AAA, said two Midwestern refineries are producing less gasoline than usual, causing prices to rise.

A BP refinery in Whiting, Ind., is working at about half capacity, Mosher said. BP is rehabilitating the refinery so it can use some of the cheap crude oil from Canada, and the project has not gone as planned, she said.

A spokesman for the refinery did not return a call for comment.

In addition, Mosher said, an Exxon Mobil refinery in Joliet is shut down for planned maintenance.

The two refineries "supply Chicagoland, Illinois, and some parts of the Midwest with gasoline, which is why we're seeing prices rise," Mosher said. "We expect until the end of June for them to last."

Tricia Simpson is a spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil's refinery in Joliet.

The refinery, which supplies northwest Illinois and other Midwest regions, produces 248,000 barrels a day when running at full capacity.

She declined to comment on how long the shutdown would last.

"When we undergo the planning for our refinery, we make sure that contractual commitments with distributors for gasoline and diesel are met for that planned and scheduled maintenance," she said.

The shutdown is necessary for detailed inspection of the equipment, Simpson said.

"It is an infrequent but necessary activity to ensure continued safe and reliable operations," she said.

James Gordon, 62, of Sterling, put $10 of gasoline into the tank of his PT Cruiser at the Shell gas station at 1801 Locust St., paying $4.19 a gallon.

Prices were 30 cents a gallon less Saturday, he said.

"This is ridiculous," he said. "It's frustrating because it could have been avoided."

The state has multiple blends of gasoline, he noted, with regional differences in the blends used.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency requires Chicago, which the Whiting and Joliet refineries also supply, to use a reformulated gasoline in the summertime, starting June 1.

State laws provide a 20 percent sales tax break on E10 fuel, which includes 10 percent corn-based ethanol.

"You can blame Springfield for a lot of this," Gordon said. "If they could do one run with the refinery and keep it consistent, they would lower their costs, because they wouldn't have to stop for maintenance, and change their mixture of chemicals," he said.

The price increases hurt the poor and disadvantaged especially, he said.

"It means a direct increase in the price of food because extra shipping prices are passed along," Gordon said. "And when you look at poor people, they're just making ends meet. They have a double whammy. The only people who benefit are the state and federal governments," he said.

Lorena Conway, 51, of Polo, put $10 of gasoline in her Chevy Venture minivan at the Kroger gas station in Sterling, where the price was $4.19 a gallon.

"I'm not happy with it," she said of the price. "I wish something could be done."

She and her husband plan to take a trip to Indiana to see family this summer, but they might not be able to take a trip to the Mississippi Palisades State Park because of the increased costs of gas, she said.

"We don't go to places as much," she said. "We stay home more. It's in the back of your mind how much money you can spend and can't spend. You pray the automobile works."

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