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updated: 5/19/2013 1:38 AM

Why is Illinois enduring a gas smackdown?

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  • Avg monthly gas prices

    Graphic: Avg monthly gas prices

  • Prices around the nation

    Graphic: Prices around the nation

  • A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.25 at this Mobil station in Buffalo Grove Thursday, far above national averages.

       A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.25 at this Mobil station in Buffalo Grove Thursday, far above national averages.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.49 without a wash at this Shell station in Palatine Thursday, far above national averages.

       A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.49 without a wash at this Shell station in Palatine Thursday, far above national averages.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.17 without a wash at this Delta Sonic station in Palatine Thursday, far above national averages.

       A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.17 without a wash at this Delta Sonic station in Palatine Thursday, far above national averages.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.17 at this Speedway station in Palatine Thursday, far above national averages.

       A gallon of regular unleaded was $4.17 at this Speedway station in Palatine Thursday, far above national averages.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • It's a rough time for Chicago region drivers with untamed gas prices topping national averages.

       It's a rough time for Chicago region drivers with untamed gas prices topping national averages.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

I stopped pumping gas when the digital display hit $50 last week. The tank wasn't quite full, but I just couldn't bear it anymore.

Reader Carolyn Sullivan of Lake Villa can relate. "Why are gas prices so high here?" she lamented recently. "It's getting to be ridiculous."

She's right. Our region is flat-out the most expensive in the nation, averaging $4.24 for a gallon of regular as of Friday. Compare that to the national average of $3.56, according to AAA.

I consulted the gas price oracles about Sullivan's question. The answers range from seasonal fuel blends, local taxes and flooding to market speculation, refinery problems, air quality, China, and chaos theory/the butterfly effect.

Let's start with the simple and build up to chaos.

Cook and the collar counties take a hit because the Clean Air Act requires areas with high smog levels (that's us) to use reformulated gasoline, which burns more cleanly.

With reformulated gas, "you have to put in special components like oxidants which cost more money," explained mechanical engineer Don Hillebrand, director of Argonne Lab's Center for Transportation Research. "If you drive west on I-88 as far as Sycamore, you'll notice gas costs 20 to 30 cents less."

Annoyingly, the people setting oil prices have the same mood swings as stockbrokers; meaning just the threat of problems can jolt the market.

Thus, flooding here in April resulted in angst that production at local refineries would flag. Although that didn't occur, "concerns are enough to trigger higher prices," AAA's Beth Mosher said. "Chicagoland is a jittery market. When there's a perception something is disrupted, the market gets nervous.

"That affects what people are paying in the suburbs and, in some cases, the greater Midwest."

And it gets worse. Across the country, costs always inch up in spring as suppliers tweak the gas formula to produce a summer blend that emits less pollution but is pricier to make.

Of course, this concept gets more complicated in northeastern Illinois, where a specially formulated gasoline is used in the summer months per a federal mandate, explained David J. Reynolds, commissioner of the city of Chicago's fleet and facility management department.

"The Chicago region's fuel blend is unique nationwide, because we rely heavily on ethanol as an oxygenate, given our prime location in the Corn Belt," Reynolds said in an email.

This special gas comes from only three area refineries, said Mosher, adding that two of them are now working at a reduced capacity. Less production equals pump pain.

"The ExxonMobil refinery in Joliet is undergoing maintenance issues and will be back to full capacity in June. And, the refinery in Whiting, Ind., is undergoing major maintenance issues that aren't going well -- at one point this spring it was at half-capacity, which is why prices rose at one point," Mosher said.

Piling on to the local gas beatdown is the fact that there's a 19-cents-a-gallon state tax, plus counties and municipalities can impose gas taxes, too. For example, DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties each charge a 4-cents-a-gallon tax and Cook County levies 6 cents.

Now for the long answer, which has a lot to do with the butterfly effect, Hillebrand said. Or to quote Jeff Goldblum's chaos theorist character in "Jurassic Park," "a butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine."

Put in a Midwest context, whether or not a consumer from, say, China is buying and driving a car can lead to pain at the pump in Lake Villa.

It's a boom time for finding new domestic sources of oil and natural gas, Hillebrand explained. But that doesn't equate to cheap gas all the time.

One reason is China's economy, unpredictable as it is influential.

"If the price goes up in China, we export our oil. It helps make us richer as a nation but the price goes up and we pay a lot more," he said.

"If China reports bad economic earnings, there are fewer vehicle sales, less oil usage and the price of oil goes down. When the economy turns upward in China, the price of oil starts to go up again."

A similar paradigm occurs with natural gas production.

Thanks in part to fracking, "we now have more natural gas than we know what to do with," Hillebrand said. "In Japan, natural gas costs 10 times more than it does here. So what is it better to do -- to provide cheap natural gas in the United States and figure out how to use it, or ship it to Japan and charge 10 times the cost here?"

We'll leave that question up to the natural gas barons. As to forecasting the future of gasoline prices, Mosher warned, "I don't think we'll see a big reprieve between now and Memorial Day."

Over the summer, the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects gas will average $3.53 per gallon. But in the Chicago area? "It should be cheaper in the summer but not drastically," Hillebrand said.

Bottom line, "it's becoming more and more the norm for Chicago to have very high prices," Mosher said.

Got some gas grief to share or fuel-saving tips? Drop me a line at mpyke@dailyherald.com

You should know

Want a bike rack/composter at your Metra station but don't have cash? Crave a multimodal facility to accommodate pedestrians, unicycles and hybrid buses? The Regional Transportation Authority and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning may have some cash for you.

The agencies are asking municipalities to submit proposals for innovative projects promoting transit. More than $825,000 in grants are available. To find out more, go here or here

Upcoming

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman talks about his vision to improve passenger travel in the Midwest at a Thursday lunch. Sponsored by the Midwest High Speed Rail, it runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Petterino's, 150 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. To register, go here

Gridlock alert

If you're commuting to the South Suburbs, watch out for delays on I-80 in Tinley Park starting Monday.

A fiber-optic cable project will cause ramp and shoulder closures daily through June 30.

One more thing

Model railroaders -- and I know you're out there -- I've got an orange alert. An American Flyer model train and village is in desperate straits, requiring caregivers with electrical and carpentry skills, according to Northwestern University's Sandhouse Gang. If you choose to accept this mission, email Keith Vogel at • Twitter fan? Follow me (and I'll follow you) at ">dankhausdevelopment@gmail.comhttps://twitter.com/DHInTransit;[URL][/URL]

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