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Spiraling gas prices hit hard

MANATEE -- Gas prices are hitting all time highs, jumping 33 cents a gallon in two weeks nationally, 45 cents a gallon locally in the past month and 15 cents here in the past week.

But don’t expect BP station owner Mike Saleh to be happy about it.

“I’m losing money selling gas,” the Parrish business owner bemoaned Monday. “I figure I’m losing about $5 to $10 a day.”

The irony is not lost on Saleh.

“I know most customers don’t understand this, but it’s true.” he said. Transaction fees that gas station owners pay for credit card use rise with the amount of the purchase. So a $50 gas fill-up is more expensive than a $25 one.

And Saleh is left frustrated and unable to answer motorists’ questions on when the price escalation will stop.

“I don’t have any idea what’s going on,” he said.

Analyst Phil Flynn, with Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago, says all the unrest in the Middle East is at least in part to blame.

“Libya is impacting prices. If it were confined there, no problem,” Flynn said. “But if it spreads to other regions, the threat to oil is very high, probably the highest it’s been in recent memory.”

The stock market is doing what it is supposed to do: ratcheting up.

“It’s similar to the run-up to the Persian Gulf War,” Flynn said. “Markets are running up in anticipation of more disruption down the road.”

Experts at AAA agree.

“Although the unrest in Libya has not yet spread to larger oil producing countries and has not further disrupted oil supply, the concern of a supply shortage remains,” said Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South. “Retail gas prices will continue to increase again this week, and many motorists will see prices at or above $3.50 a gallon.”

That would still be below the Bradenton-Sarasota region’s record high of $4.05 a gallon, set in July 2008, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report.

Don Hall, founder of Transition Sarasota, a project of the Peace in Education Action Center in Sarasota, thinks the other part to the gas price puzzle is that we have reached peak production for oil worldwide -- and demand still continues to increase.

“Supply is going to struggle to keep up with demand,” he said, quoting a recent Wall Street Journal story that only 95 barrels of every 100 barrels taken out of earth are replaced.

“This is the untold story, it is a much deeper crisis,” Hall said.

His group is looking at ways to create an independence from fossil fuels. They are sponsoring a community forum Saturday to address the issue. “Local Energy! A Community Forum” will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Crossroads Church, 4726 N. Tamiami Trail.

“Many people think the solutions to our energy challenges are either expensive -- like buying solar panels for your roof -- or out of our control, like changing the political system,” Hall said. “But there are so many other things we can do, right now, as communities, on the cheap -- like organizing volunteers to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency or forming an ecological fuel cooperative.”

He knows changing the system will take longer. He personally feels bad when he has to shun his bike or mass transit to use his car because it is the only viable option.

“I feel terrible every time I get in the car,” he said. “There’s a lot of changes we need to make systemically.”

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority also is hoping higher gas prices will lead to more car-pooling and mass-transit use.

The seven-county authority is promoting its commuter services program, which features a free ride-matching program at www.tampabayrideshare.org.

-- Herald staff writer Duane Marsteller contributed to this report.

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