If anyone has a right to complain about California's record-high gas prices, it's truck driver Dwayne Garrett.
The Escalon resident was gassing up his 18-wheeler Friday at the Flying "J" Travel Plaza near Interstate 5 - where diesel prices were at $1.84 a gallon, 50 cents higher than normal for this time of year - in preparation for a trip to the Bay Area. Usually, a trucker would want to fill up both of the truck's large gas tanks, but looking at the price board made Garrett think otherwise.
"With the diesel prices this high," Garrett said, "I can only fill up one tank at a time."
Northern California's gas prices hit record highs for the month of February last week, surpassing $2 per gallon in many cities - including Lodi. While the price spike has created a nuisance for most motorists, it can be a financial sieve for truck drivers, who carry and consume more fuel than anyone else on the roads.
"For every penny a gallon the price goes up, it costs us about $1,000 a month," said Tony Alegre, owner of Lodi's Alegre Trucking. "And it's gone up something like 35 cents during the last month."
Typically, fuel prices remain steady during the winter months, when people are traveling less, said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director for the California Energy Commission. Last month, however, two refineries that had closed for maintenance hit a snag when reopening, and were forced to buy gasoline on the open, or "spot," market.
"When these major refineries went and bought 1 million gallons on the spot market, it pretty much sopped up the surplus and drove the prices up," Chandler said.
Since diesel fuel and regular gasoline are produced at the same refineries, prices for both will go up when there is low demand, Chandler said. As a result, diesel prices have skyrocketed, causing drivers like Garrett and trucking company owners like Alegre to dig deeper into their pockets.
"It's hard to budget for spikes like this," Alegre said. "Nobody has a crystal ball. Most of us have to suck it up."
P.J. Vaz, co-owner of Lodi's Vaz Trucking, said he wouldn't be hurt as badly as some larger companies would by the high prices - the company has 45 trucks, less than a third of what Alegre oversees. With the growing season on the horizon, however, Vaz's hauling is going to increase, and the fuel bill will likely follow accordingly.
"Right now we start getting real busy, to where we start seeing a significant change in the fuel bill," Vaz said.
Diesel trucks typically have two tanks that hold anywhere from 150 to 200 gallons each, said Marc Boriack, general manager at the Flying "J". Factor in that the trucks only get five or six miles to the gallon, and it's not surprising that those tanks can empty pretty quickly.
"They load up with 300 to 400 gallons of fuel every time they stop," Boriack said. "Even a penny makes a huge difference for them."
Wholesale fuel prices - which are usually indicators of what the retail market will do - have begun to go down, which is an encouraging sign for motorists, Chandler said. Merchants are often reluctant to lower prices, however, so it could take some time for the market to settle down.
"Gas prices always go up like a rocket and come down like a feather," she said. "We won't be seeing gas prices where they were last year, unfortunately."
Alegre, who purchases approximately 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel every month for his operation, said he watches the fuel rates on a daily basis. He said the prices appear to be coming down, but the state's unique requirements for environmentally friendly fuel won't lessen the demand anytime soon.
California is also in a unique situation because it doesn't have any new refineries on the horizon, Boriack said. Since no new oil is being produced in the state - and what oil is produced has to meet higher environmental standards - demand is going to be high for a while.
"We don't have any new refineries coming on line, and the ones we do have are at capacity," Boriack said. "Supply and demand, that's what's happening. And it's going to get worse."