By David R Baker
Many U.S. drivers, stung by record gasoline prices, say they’d pay even more if it would end Russia’s war in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.
Monday morning’s commute brought the shock of $80 fill-ups in California and New York, as the threat of sanctions and curbs on Russian oil smashed price records that had stood for nearly 14 years. Average pump prices in the U.S. are now $4.173 per gallon, the most expensive on record, according to auto club AAA.
And yet, some drivers say sanctions — and the even-higher prices they’d bring — might be necessary to stop the war. And as much as they hate paying more, it pales compared to the genuine hardships others face. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found 71% of Americans would support banning Russian oil, even if it pushes prices higher.
In San Francisco, Chase Kanarek said on Monday sanctions could be a “necessary evil.” A line of waiting cars snaked down Divisadero Street from the station where he stopped for $4.90 gas, some of the city’s cheapest. Kanarek, a golf pro, said he wanted the U.S. to pump more of its own oil until the country can switch to more sustainable forms of energy.
“If the sanctions actually do something to hamper Russia’s ability to move through Ukraine, then it’s an appropriate decision to make, even if Americans are suffering in the short term,” Kanarek said. “A lot of that burden could be lessened if we started drilling for our own oil and opened the reserves.”
California now averages $5.44 for a gallon of regular, according to AAA. The state often has the nation’s most expensive gasoline, the result of high taxes, costs from global-warming programs and the state’s use of pollution-fighting fuel blends used nowhere else. Still, prices there have jumped 60 cents in just one week as the threat of sanctions grows.
In New York City’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, Ken Mkrtchyn paid $79 to fill his 2019 Audi on Monday,
“Gas prices are the least of our problems,” said Mkrtchyn. “I would pay more for gas as long as they stop this frickin’ war.”
Mkrtchyn said he served in the Red Army as a teenager in Armenia before coming to the U.S. in 1989. That didn’t make him sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine. “Putin is a rat,” he said. “And what do rats do when they’re stuck in a corner? They attack.”
The spike in gasoline prices comes as many Americans are emerging from two years of working from home and forgoing extensive vacations as the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life. While many people can cut back on the number of miles they drive, they can’t avoid it altogether.
Doris Melamed, 50, said she shopped around for the lowest prices in West Los Angeles for her 1998 Lexus and found them at the Mobil station on Sepulveda and Santa Monica boulevards — $5.69 per gallon. Another, emptier Mobil station a few blocks away advertised $6.09 per gallon, according to Melamed, who is a home health-care provider, runs a flower business and drives for Uber Eats.
“It’s insane,” said Jennifer Okumura, who paid about $45 for half a tank at a Boston gas station. An art consultant, she drives extensively to drop off artworks, not something that can be done over Zoom. “It’s steep, and when you’re an entrepreneur, when you have your own business, it makes you want to do all your trips in one day — but you can’t,” she said. “With everything that’s going on in the world, you don’t know when it’s going to go down. Not any time soon.”
Massachusetts now averages $4.24 for regular, and while that pales compared with California’s prices, it’s still a record, according to AAA. The only time prices approached this level before was in July 2008 — right before the financial crisis that began the Great Recession. The month also brought the previous nationwide record of $4.10 per gallon.
The spike has triggered customer complaints, said the manager of Break Time Chevron in Carrollton, Texas, where regular was $3.89 per gallon Monday. Most area stations were charging $3.99 to $4.19. “They say, ‘Why the hell are we paying for the war? It’s not even our war,’” said the manager, Molool, who uses only one name.
He expects to see gasoline top $5 per gallon by summer if Russian oil is removed from the market. “I feel really bad for my customers but it’s just a question of how long can we hang on?” Molool said.
In Chicago, Gene Nino paid $4.99 a gallon to fill his Honda Civic at a station in the city’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. He blamed Putin for encroaching on Ukraine but also Biden for his decisions on the Keystone XL pipeline and Afghanistan. “He’s weak,” Nino said of Biden. Because of the war, Nino, who works at a wastewater treatment plant, is paying more for gas, and he says his stock investments have lost value. Still, he supports Ukraine’s independence.
“Ukraine is getting a raw deal,” he said. “There’s a reason why they separated.”
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