Rising Gas Prices Have Drivers Asking, ‘Is This for Real?’

on Mar8
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After months of working from home, Caroline McNaney, 29, was excited about going back to work in an office, even if her new job in Trenton, N.J., meant commuting an hour each way.

But when she spent $68 filling the tank of her blue Nissan Maxima this week, she felt a surge of regret about switching jobs.

“Is this for real?” Ms. McNaney recalled thinking. “I took a job further from home to make more money, and now I feel like I didn’t do anything for myself because gas is so high.”

The recent rise in gas prices — which the war in Ukraine has pushed even higher — has contributed to her sense of disappointment with President Biden. “I feel like he wants us to go out and spend money into the economy, but at the same time everything is being inflated,” she said.

Americans everywhere are feeling the sting of rising gasoline, which reached a national average of $4.07 a gallon on Monday, up more than 10 percent from a week ago. The last time consumers dealt with such a period of sharp price increases was when the global economy came undone during the 2008 financial crisis. (At that time, the average price per gallon reached roughly $5.37 when adjusted for inflation.)

This time, the high gasoline prices are hitting during multiple crises, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a pandemic that is receding but still not over, and the highest inflation levels in 40 years.

Gas prices were already increasing before the invasion last month, as oil suppliers scrambled to keep up with rising demand from consumers and businesses recovering from Covid disruptions. But calls in recent days from U.S. lawmakers and others to ban Russian oil imports have spurred worries about another hit to global supplies. Prices at the pump, in turn, soared rapidly.

The sticker shock is creating a conundrum for the Biden administration, which is trying to isolate Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, without squeezing the United States economy in the process.

The extreme prices — which for some types of gas have hovered near $6 a gallon in parts of California — could be fleeting. Accelerating production in the shale oil fields of Texas and other regions is expected to begin replenishing supplies soon.

Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan, said he expected consumer spending to slow over the next few months as Americans pay more to fill up their tanks. Some people will be able to draw on savings to partly cushion the blow, he said.

“The long-term impact should be somewhat minimal,” Mr. Feroli said.

Gasoline accounts for only a fairly small share of consumers’ overall spending, but because gas prices are so visible — posted in giant numbers alongside every highway in the country — they have an outsize influence on people’s perceptions of inflation and the economy.

That perception is an increasingly dark one, according to drivers interviewed filling up on Monday. They said the higher prices had already caused them to cut back on expenses and small pleasures like going out to eat.

For many, the high prices are another hurdle frustrating their efforts to return to normalcy after the pandemic.

Since moving to the United States from Torreón, Mexico, in 2007, Jesús López, 36, was used to gas prices rising steadily for a few days, but eventually coming back down. Mr. López said this time felt different because he wasn’t seeing a stop to the climb when he filled up the tank of his 2008 Ford Expedition.

Mr. López, who works as a school janitor in Dallas, said that if prices kept skyrocketing, he would have to cut back on leisure activities.

“It’s sad that if I stop going to a restaurant, a toxic cycle will be created,” said Mr. López. “If I stop spending money on a restaurant, they’ll get less income and people could lose their jobs.”

Mr. López said he empathized with Ukrainians, but lamented that the conflict overseas was also affecting working-class people in the United States.

“If I have to spend more to go to work, then I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll just have to administer and budget my money more if I want to keep having a decent lifestyle.”

Sandy Ramos, 24, who lives in Cerritos, Calif., says much of the money she makes at her part-time job as a research and development engineering intern now goes to food and gas.

She has looked into taking public transportation to work instead of driving, but that would add time to her already hourlong commute. Instead she is saving money in other ways, like cutting back spending on clothing.

Ms. Ramos said she didn’t know where to direct her frustration over gas prices. “I don’t know who to blame or what to blame,” she said. “I feel like someone needs to be responsible for it.”

While oil prices worldwide have shot up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden and Democrats, who hold control of Congress, have faced consumers’ ire.

Cat Abad, 37, who lives in the San Francisco area, where prices have hit nearly $6 for the highest-grade gas, said she saw stickers on the pumps at one local station saying that Mr. Biden was responsible for the rise. She took the stickers off, she said, believing that he was not at fault.

Still, she said, “It’s a good time to have a Prius,” as she filled up for her commute down the peninsula to Foster City.

Inflation is already proving a perilous issue for Mr. Biden and fellow Democrats as the midterm elections approach, with many voters blaming them for failing to control the rising cost of living. The higher gas prices add further political complexity for Mr. Biden, who has vowed to curb the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

In light of the war in Ukraine, the energy industry is pushing the Biden administration to support more domestic oil production by opening up drilling in federal lands and restarting pipeline projects.

“This moment is a reminder that oil and natural gas are strategic assets and we need to continue to make investments in them,” said Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group.

There is a chance that the strain on consumers may be temporary as global oil supply and demand are rebalanced. And, in the near term, lower consumer spending may have some benefits. Reduced spending could help constrain inflation, but at the expense of slower economic growth.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, rapidly rising energy prices were contributing to the fastest inflation in 40 years. Energy prices — including not just gasoline but home heating and electricity as well — accounted for more than a sixth of the total increase in the Consumer Price Index over the 12 months ending in January.

The recent jump in energy prices will only make the problem worse. Forecasters surveyed by FactSet expect the February inflation report, which the Labor Department will release on Thursday, to show that consumer prices rose 0.7 percent last month, and are up 7.9 percent over the past year. The continued run-up in gasoline prices over the past week suggests overall inflation in March will top 8 percent for the first time since 1982.

Some drivers said the higher gas prices were a necessary result of taking a hard line on Mr. Putin.

Alan Zweig, 62, a window contractor in San Francisco, said: “I don’t care if it goes to $10 a gallon. It’s costing me dearly, but not what it’s costing those poor people in Ukraine.”

Destiny Harrell, 26, drives her silver Kia Niro hybrid about 15 minutes each day from her home in Santa Barbara to her job at a public library. She is now considering asking her boss if she can spend some days working from home.

She said the rise in prices has contributed to her anger at Mr. Putin and his decision to invade Ukraine.

“It’s super frustrating that a war that shouldn’t even really affect us has global reach.”

Ben Casselman, Coral Murphy Marcos and Clifford Krauss contributed reporting.

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