CHEYENNE — When it comes to what people pay at the gas pump for a gallon of regular unleaded fuel or diesel fuel, there may be as many theories as to why it remains so expensive in Wyoming as there are motorists in the State of Equality.
This may be because, according to experts who spoke to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in recent days, there does not appear to be a single cause for the recent disparity between prices across the state and what the average people pay at the gas pump across the country. What experts, data reviewed by the WTE and regular motorists easily agree on is that petrol is expensive, more than usual.
Prices have soared in recent months nationally, statewide and locally in the Cheyenne region, in part due to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. That day, regular gasoline in Wyoming cost about 12 cents less than in the United States, according to historical data provided by the service and the AAA Motorists’ Association to WTE. On Memorial Day, which marks the unofficial start of the busy summer driving season, the price disparity was nearly 30 cents, again with Wyoming drivers paying less.
Then, in late June, the trend lines reversed, with national gas averages now below Wyoming prices. Over the past few weeks, prices for gasoline and other fuels have fallen. It’s just that in Wyoming they’re dropping less than the country as a whole.
“It’s a strange trend,” said Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association. “There has been a huge price disruption over the past few weeks,” he continued, referring to the price disparity in Wyoming itself.
As the days have passed this month, the difference between state and nation has widened further. As of Wednesday afternoon in Wyoming, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was selling for $4.74, compared to the US average of $4.47, according to AAA. Although the disparity was narrower, there was also a gap when it came to diesel, which is the fuel used by large trucks.
There is, however, good news.
As experts and industry representatives note, gas prices locally, in the state and nationally have come down. Many predict that Wyoming will eventually catch up with the country’s decline and that prices here could once again be lower than the country as a whole.
According to another gas price research service, for the past two weeks, Wyoming residents have been paying less at the pump. In just 14 days to last Monday, according to GasBuddy.com reports, the cost dropped about 13 cents per gallon for regular unleaded.
“I strongly believe Wyoming will reclaim its rightful place as lower gas prices,” said Bailey of the gas station association. “Especially in a few months when we release some summer stuff,” the costs to consumers should come down, he predicted.
The caveat is that this scenario is “absent of something we can’t really control” or easily predict, based on current circumstances. Bailey acknowledged that while prices at the pump will “go down”, it’s “probably not fast enough for people”.
Other experts agree with Bailey’s assessment. They say that after the summer ends, the decline in Wyoming should be especially noticeable when people go to a gas station to “fuel up.” Or in the case of many people surveyed earlier this year by the WTE, just putting in a few gallons at a time to stretch their budgets.
“We are in peak driving season, so demand is higher in this part of the country as people flock west for traditional driving holidays in the mountains and national parks. This additional demand only exacerbates the first two factors and raises our prices relative to the rest of the country,” wrote Robert Godby, an energy economist at the University of Wyoming, in an email last week. WTE.
“While there is good news,” Godby continued, these factors “are temporary.” Like others, he said that assuming wholesale oil prices “don’t go back up, our prices will eventually fall below most parts of the country and the national average.”
Godby is far from alone in his predictions. While there are reasons why prices are high now, relative to other states, there are also reasons to expect gas to eventually cost less throughout Wyoming.
“Things are starting to look up” with gas prices here, wrote Patrick De Haan, head of oil analysis for price research firm GasBuddy, in an email to the WTE. “They will eventually return to their normal state,” the analyst continued.
Experts, not to mention regular consumers, don’t entirely agree on why gas is so expensive right now in this state. They do, however, have a few explanations.
UW’s Godby highlights the summer driving season, which normally leads to higher prices. It also evokes “the rural character of our territory”. This “naturally reduces competition” because there are fewer gas stations in the less populated state than in a densely populated area.
“So in Wyoming, gasoline prices come down more slowly, because there are fewer gas stations in most areas that are competing against each other, and so with less intense competition, there are fewer incentive to undermine your competition and start a price war,” wrote the Economist, who is an associate professor at UW and acting dean of the College of Business. “It’s happening in more rural areas, and so when we go into a period of falling prices, like we are now, we often lag behind the rest of the country.”
GasBuddy’s De Haan had another idea: A refinery fire several months ago is still affecting the gas market.
“Right now, prices across much of the Rockies are a bit above what they normally would be,” the analyst said. “The refinery has been repaired and is reopening, but it will take weeks for stocks to rebuild.”
On March 26 around 10 p.m., a fire broke out at an ExxonMobil refinery in Billings, Montana, according to a company representative. The fire was put out early the next morning with local help and industry assistance, and no injuries were reported.
Dan Carter, who manages public and government affairs at the facility, said most operations were unaffected by the shutdown of a crude oil processing unit. “All other parts of the refinery were working,” he said by phone. It took time to examine the unit and make fixes, which he compared to removing a spark plug from a car’s engine and making adjustments to keep the car running.
Early last month, everything was back to normal, Carter said. “Right now we’re back at full capacity.” This plant is licensed to process some 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day, a small portion of which comes from Wyoming.
Responding to speculation that the fire at his plant continues to impact a fuel market hundreds of miles away, Carter noted that most of the oil processed there is not directed to the Wyoming. Instead, it goes into the northern region of the Rockies, as far west as Spokane, Washington.
Whatever the reasons for it being expensive, fuel users remain frustrated.
Amid the various fluctuations, it’s hard to tell why the prices are the way they are, said one trucker. “One day it may be down 14 cents, the next day it’s up 24” cents a gallon for diesel, said Warren Terrell, owner of Torrington-based family business MLT Trucking. For the record, on Wednesday it averaged $5.55 a gallon in Wyoming, about 17 cents below the June 29 all-time high.
Although the professional driver in his forties has noticed that the prices are gradually falling, they are still too high for him. Meanwhile, “freight is slowing down. It also hurts,” said Terrell, whose company owns two trucks and leases a third to haul cargo and grain trailers.
“We’ve increased our freight rates” in recent months, said the trucker, who spoke by phone while on the road (safely using a wireless headset). “Not (by) as much as we had to increase our fuel surcharge.” Without it, he continued, “we would have had to close.”
Bailey, who spoke by phone on Wednesday, had spent about $85 earlier in the day on gas for his own car.
None of the major fuel sellers in the Cheyenne area would comment. Bailey said they don’t like high prices any more than consumers do.
“Nobody likes high gasoline prices more than the retailers that sell it,” he noted. “It just eats up capital, it eats up costs, it puts pressure on wages and other operational costs.
“Gasoline retailers love selling cheap gasoline.”