LOCALIZE IT: Ideas for local coverage of skyrocketing gas

EDITORS/NEWS DIRECTORS:

The Fourth of July is coming, and fireworks aren't the only thing skyrocketing. Gas prices are shooting up — and tempers are flaring — as costs for fuel soar out of control just as inflation pinches ordinary Americans hard.

A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline will set you back an average $4.95, according to the latest survey by the American Automobile Association. It's most expensive in California at $6.37 per gallon, and cheapest in Arkansas at $4.50 per gallon. Some relief may be in sight, though: President Joe Biden is calling on Congress to suspend federal gasoline and diesel taxes for three months.

If the gas tax savings were fully passed along to consumers, people would save roughly 3.6% at the pump, or about $2.76 for a 15-gallon fill-up. But they'd also need to gird for another possible surge in prices this autumn.

If it's any consolation, adjusted for inflation, Americans are still paying less than they did in July 2008. The peak then would be about $5.24 a gallon in today’s dollars.

There are ample opportunities to localize this story, which touches every American family and business. Local stories could run alongside the AP story US—Gas Prices and other spot coverage. (Also please note that this is an updated version of Localize It guides that ran on May 23 under the slug US—Gas Prices-Localize It and on March 8 under the slug US--Russia-Ukraine War-Localize It.)

WHY IS GAS SO PRICEY RIGHT NOW?

Experts say the pain at the pump is coming amid higher crude oil costs and tight gasoline supplies, in part because of the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year, Biden banned imports of Russian oil, which drove up gas and home heating oil prices which were already soaring before the war began.

Oil prices were high even before Russia’s invasion, because the global economy is demanding more fuel after disruptions to travel and manufacturing from the pandemic.

Although gas prices have crept lower over the past week, they're still sky high.

"Demand for gasoline has declined, perhaps in response to record-breaking high gas prices—and that has helped push down prices at the pump,” said Mary Maguire, AAA’s director of public and government affairs for the Northeast. “This dip in demand, coupled with a drop in oil prices, has taken some of the steam out of surging gasoline prices. But consumers are still paying historically high prices.”

Inflation is rising to its highest rates in four decades, driving up prices not only for gas but for food, rent and a wide array of consumer goods and services, raising the specter of a recession.

ECONOMIC & POLITICAL IMPACT

As gasoline prices surge, making it more expensive for ordinary Americans to get to work and the grocery store, many families struggling to fill their tanks are postponing vacations and large purchases that ordinarily would bolster the economy. Some are even looking for new careers that aren't as dependent on driving.

Biden's call to suspend the federal gas tax needs congressional approval, which is far from assured. And even if lawmakers agree, the three-month pause could mean that the tax — and those painfully high prices — return just in time for November's midterm elections. Democrats, already in danger of losing their tiny Senate majority — and maybe even the House — won't want to be associated with a resurgence of high prices.

Contact gas stations and ask them about persistent suspicions among many ordinary Americans that they’re engaging in price gouging.

Questions to ask ordinary drivers:

— Have high prices at the pump prompted you to postpone or cancel plans for a vacation that would have involved a lot of driving? If so, what’s your Plan B for getting away by yourself or with your family?

— How long is your commute, and how much more money are you spending to get to and from work, or to visit family and friends? Are you having difficulty filling your tank? Are there things you’re having to skip — coffee, snacks, meals out — to compensate?

— Are you considering carpooling or public transit if those are more affordable options?

— Has the gas price crisis gotten you thinking about a new job that doesn't require much, if any, driving?

— If you’re a driver with kids who drive, are you curtailing their use of gas? Are you asking them to chip in more?

— Who do you blame for the prices? Why?

GAS AND THE MIDTERMS

Questions to ask your U.S. senators and U.S. House members:

— Do you support the president's push for a federal gas tax holiday? If so, why? If not, why not?

— What other measures do you think might help lower fuel prices, or at least keep them from rising further?

— How do you see gas prices impacting how your constituents will vote in November's pivotal midterm elections, especially if the federal tax on fuel is suspended but re-imposed just before voting gets underway?

Think about businesses that might be affected. Some questions to ask:

— RESTAURANTS: Are fewer people going out to eat? Are restaurants in your area that used to deliver orders for free now charging?

— CAR WASHES AND AUTO REPAIR SHOPS: Have people stopped taking their cars to the car wash? Are they putting off visits to repair shops to save money?

— FACTORIES: How are rising fuel prices affecting their operations? Are they cutting back on operations or eliminating shifts to cut costs?

— FARMS: Agriculture is heavily dependent on diesel and other fuel for tractors, combines and other machinery. Are rising costs prompting delays in working the fields? Are local farmers concerned they’ll have to pass on some of those costs to consumers? If that happens, how might produce prices increase at the grocery store?

CHEAPER TRANSPORTATION

Contact local auto dealerships and ask if they’ve seen renewed interest in more fuel-efficient makes and models.

Questions to ask dealers:

— What kinds of cars are getting a new look from prospective buyers feeling pinched at the pumps? Are you seeing resurgent interest in hybrids or electric vehicles?

— Is interest still high in SUVs, trucks and other fuel-thirsty types of vehicles? Or have you seen a shift away from those kinds of vehicles, which seem to have become American favorites regardless of gasoline prices? What about RVs and campers, which sold briskly earlier in the pandemic — is that still the case?

HELPFUL RESOURCES

The auto club AAA tracks gasoline prices by state and provides the national average at any given time: https://gasprices.aaa.com/state-gas-price-averages/. Go to https://gasprices.aaa.com/?state=US and hover over your state. Click on your state to see how today’s price compares with yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, and a year ago.

— Ask AAA, GasBuddy, the Oil Price Information Service or other experts — maybe a professor in your state who follows energy policy — why your state’s price is higher or lower than the national average. Regional differences in prices could be due to state gas taxes and fuel standards, a relative lack of refining capacity or other factors.

— Ask those same experts if they expect prices to keep rising in your area, and why.

— How much per gallon is your state’s gas tax or other relevant taxes, and are lawmakers or your governor proposing to give motorists relief? Some states have suspended gas taxes to give drivers a little relief at the pump.

— Use data from the Census Bureau to find the median income in your area. Communities with relatively low median incomes are going to be hit much harder than more affluent areas.

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Localize It is an occasional feature produced by The Associated Press for its customers’ use. Questions can be directed to Katie Oyan at koyan@ap.org.

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