District gas prices climbed nearly 4 cents yesterday, leaving prices in the city among the highest in the nation.
The average price in the District was about $3.38 a gallon for regular, higher than any state and nearly every other urban area included in a AAA-sponsored survey. At the same time, prices in the suburbs fell slightly, indicating an unusual discrepancy in the direction of prices in the city and nearby counties, analysts said. The national average rose a tenth of a cent to about $3.04 a gallon for regular.
Station owners blamed major oil companies for the growing gap in prices in the District and the suburbs. Oil company officials laid responsibility on Hurricane Katrina, but one said station owners in the District were propping up prices to increase their profits.
Whoever is responsible, drivers were livid. "It's ridiculous here," said Maico Kasmirski, 29, of Silver Spring, who pulled into a Northwest BP station and only partially filled his near-empty tank. He said he planned to stop again at a lower-priced station in Maryland. "It's completely crazy that they're charging so much more."
John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said D.C. prices were "unseemly" and called for an investigation. "Something appears to be rotten in the District in terms of gas prices," he said.
Townsend criticized D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) for not pursuing questions about price gouging with the same vigor as the governors of Maryland and Virginia. A spokesman for Williams, Vincent Morris, said the mayor is "very concerned with the price of gas" and that prosecutors would investigate any evidence of gouging.
Several station owners said they were not increasing their profit on the higher prices. An association that represents gas station owners in Maryland and the District said oil companies appeared to be charging more in the city than they do in suburbs.
"For whatever reason, the pricing departments at the headquarters of these oil companies felt like there was a profit-taking situation," said Paul Fiore, director of government affairs for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station & Automotive Repair Association. "More than likely, it's a temporary situation."
Some of the major oil companies that supply Washington gas stations, including Exxon Mobil Corp., declined to comment. Exxon referred calls to the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group.
Ron Planting, an official with the institute, said he could not comment on specifics of company pricing in the city and suburbs. But Planting said it was unusual for D.C. prices to be higher than all of the states and said storm disruptions were to blame. "Usually, Hawaii or California or Alaska is on top," he said.
An official with one oil company that supplies D.C. said his company was charging station owners in the city no more than in the suburbs, and in some cases charged less yesterday. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he said he was disclosing confidential price information, said the station owners could lower their prices but were trying to make more money.
Gasoline prices nationally have surged after Hurricane Katrina, which damaged and idled several major refineries that turn crude oil into gasoline. The storm also knocked out line oil production in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Washington region has been acutely affected by the storm damage because the area receives much of its gasoline from two pipelines -- called Plantation and Colonial -- that run from the Gulf Coast region. The pipelines are now fully operational, but at least one is transporting less than it did before the hurricane because of refinery outages.
"The greater Washington area is probably one of the most dependent metropolitan areas on the Colonial Pipeline for its gasoline supply," said BP spokesman Scott Dean. "We still have some tightness in terms of supply."
Even before the hurricane, prices in the city were typically higher than those in Maryland and Virginia suburbs because of factors including higher real estate prices and less competition among stations.
Nationally, pump prices started to stabilize this week after prices of oil and gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange moderated.
Major oil companies supply much of the gasoline to D.C. stations, and while many of the stations carry major brand names, they are independently owned.
In addition to comparing D.C. prices with the states', the AAA survey covers pump prices in 277 cities and other population centers. Only four of those areas -- three of them in New York and one in Hawaii -- had higher average prices than those in the District.