Just when it appeared gas prices at the pump were going to be relatively low this spring, another spike has hit Whatcom County and much of Western Washington.
On Friday, May 10, the average price for a gallon of gas was $3.95 in Bellingham, a 21-cent jump compared to last week, according to AAA Washington's Fuel Gauge report.
The rise is happening in Western Washington: In Olympia, for example, the average price also jumped 21 cents in one week to $3.88 a gallon.
It's a different story for Eastern Washington, which gets its gas from refineries to the east. In Spokane, the average price for a gallon of gas was $3.57 on May 10, up less than a dime from a week ago.
What's disheartening about this spring spike is that it isn't because of any unexpected events, such as a refinery fire, said Tim Hamilton, executive director of a nonprofit trade association for motor fuel retailers and suppliers in Washington. He believes supply is tight in Western Washington, possibly because some fuel has been exported out of this area.
"What you see today is the result of conscious decisions by the gas companies leading to a spike in prices," Hamilton said.
The bad news is he expects average prices to rise above $4 a gallon for the short term in places like Bellingham. This will lead to a reaction from consumers, who will use less gas, which will then lead to a drop in prices later this year.
If something unexpected happens, however, such as a situation that results in a West Coast refinery shutdown, then gas prices will shoot above $5 a gallon, he said.
Jennifer Cook of AAA Washington agrees that a tightening of supply in Western Washington appears to be the issue. As for future prices, she expects changes will depend on what happens to crude oil prices in the coming weeks.
A spike in prices in Western Washington prior to Memorial Day has now taken place the past six springs, as gas companies have gone with a strategy to have less extra supply on hand, Hamilton said.
Just a week ago it appeared Whatcom residents would not see a spike in prices. With crude oil prices stable and no unexpected issues, local prices were around 50 cents a gallon lower than the previous year.
Prices also are rising in other West Coast areas. In some parts of Southern California, the average price is already above $4 a gallon.
While up significantly in the past week, Bellingham's average price remains below last year at this time, when it was $4.21 a gallon. Last May the BP Cherry Point refinery was going through significant repairs following a February 2012 fire.