By Jeremy Harrow
As prices at the pump surged across the nation, patrons at Queens gas stations noticed their wallets were a lot lighter last week.
Although the highest prices were reported in Manhattan, prices in Queens were not that far behind and topped the $2-a-gallon mark for full-service Super unleaded at one Mobil station.
Oil industry observers blamed the dramatic price spike on uncertainty over a war with Iraq, political turmoil in Venezuela that has hampered oil production in the United States’ largest foreign oil supplier, and one of the worst winters to hit the Northeast in recent years.
Ramdeo Sookdeo could hardly believe his eyes Friday when he glanced at the pump and saw a purchase price of $28 staring back at him.
“I’m stuck, I can only put in premium,” the Queens resident noted as he filled up his Ford commercial van at the Hess station on Queens Boulevard in Woodside.
At $1.91 a gallon, Sookdeo has watched it climb penny by penny. “They keep talking about war and the prices keep going up,” he said.
At the Mobil station on Northern Boulevard and Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Paul Trott pointed at his Range Rover and said, “You don’t want to own one of these.” The 62-year-old did not think there was any one reason for the current price levels.
“It’s not only Iraq, it’s Venezuela, you take your pick,” he said.
Although popular sport utility vehicles like the Range Rover are notorious for being gas guzzlers, sales of the big automobiles appear not to have diminished in Queens during the present gas crisis.
Tony Arciniaga, owner of Bay Chevrolet in Douglaston, said his sales numbers still look strong. “As of right now, I haven’t seen a decline, I haven’t experienced it,” he said.
Over at DiBlasi Ford in Corona, the general manager, Mary Anne Lattka, said she had not seen a major difference. Lattka was unsure if the status quo would change if America went to war against Iraq. “Well, it’s really hard to predict,” she said.
At another Hess station on Hillside Avenue in Queens Village, Jason Khan complained that “the American consumer should not be paying for things that rise out of bad policy.” The 23-year-old entrepreneur quickly added, however, that he thought national security was important.
One consumer, Peter Rogoski, 51, blamed the oil companies for exploiting the current political climate. “I heard the refineries are not even at 100 percent,” he said while filling up at the Mobil rest stop near LaGuardia Airport.
World oil demand peaks during the winter months because consumers need high levels of heating oil in the Western hemisphere but still drive cars. Gasoline use hits its high point for the year during the summer months.
Saying the oil companies were “creating their own shortage,” Rogoski was not alone in his suspicions. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently warned that prices could climb as high as $2.50 a gallon if the major oil refiners did not expand their production levels.
“They say production is low right now because they are converting from winter to summer blends of gas and doing maintenance work,” Schumer said. “If that were the case, then current production levels should match those from Februarys of previous years. My information indicates they do not.”
Schumer also cautioned the oil industry against limiting production because of rising costs. “I have news for Big Oil: If we go to war with Iraq, crude oil prices aren’t going anywhere but up.”
The city Department of Consumer Affairs has so far not received any complaints of price gouging or other unfair business practices by city gas stations, said Dina Improta, a department spokeswoman.
Inspectors are sent out to check gas stations once a year to do octane testing and to ensure compliance with the weights and measures laws, Improta said.