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Spiking gas prices sting drivers nationwide, tapping pocketbooks and patience

The national average price for a gallon of gasoline reached $4.17 on Tuesday, the highest since summer 2008

Elizabeth Lopez, 36, owns a housecleaning business with six employees and says the increase in D.C. gas prices has had a measurable impact on her business. She pumps at a Mobil gas station on Georgia Avenue. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The trajectory of gas prices at the Mobil station four miles north of the White House has been brutal, clocking in at $3.85 a week ago, $4.17 on Friday, then $4.43 Tuesday, leaving Elizabeth Lopez, a mother of three and employer of six, feeling trapped.

“I don’t know how we can do it,” Lopez said, filling up a Chrysler minivan across from a shuttered tire shop in Northwest Washington.

Geopolitical and market forces have squeezed the owner of a housekeeping business between her employees, who successfully pushed her to double their weekly fuel allowance to $40, and her customers, who face higher prices across the economy and have cut back on her services.

“Everything’s raised up,” said Lopez, 36. “It’s crazy. It’s impact for me. It’s impact for them. It’s impact for everybody.”

The reverberations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are being felt at pumps across the United States, where the national average price for a gallon of gasoline reached $4.17 on Tuesday, the highest since summer 2008, according to AAA. President Biden’s decision to ban the import of Russian oil, backed by key Republicans and Democrats in Congress, could send costs higher.

President Biden on March 8 banned imports of oil and natural gas from Russia to penalize them for invading Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

U.S. to ban oil imports from Russia as White House explores drastic plans to buffer economy from energy shock

The rise has made some reconsider driving and deepened existing angst caused by higher food and other prices. Some drivers are filling extra gas cans in the event that gas prices continue to march upward, while others are topping off a few bucks at a time to lessen the pinch.

The pain has not been felt uniformly among states, or even within them, with fuel supplies, taxes and other factors leaving costs ranging wildly. While a gallon of regular gasoline sells for an average of $3.72 in Oklahoma, the same costs $5.44 in California.

Prices of the diesel that largely fuel the nation’s trucking fleets and supply chains also have soared. Rising fuel prices will add to the woes of airlines, which have limped through the pandemic with the help of billions in federal aid, and now could pass higher prices onto customers.

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In central Baton Rouge, past-due child support payments, a wife and three kids at home in Texas — combined with a steadily rising cost of living over the past year — already left Ricky Solis, 44, with no wiggle room in his family budget.

When gas prices skyrocketed this past week in southern Louisiana, where Solis works as a scaffolder building platforms that give workers access to refineries and offshore rigs, he had no choice but to clock out later. Eight-hour workdays became 12-hour grinds, he said, filling up his white Hyundai on Tuesday at a gas station charging $4.19 a gallon.

“It’s just making me more and more stressed,” he said, watching the pump’s ticker climb from $20 to $30 to $40-plus. “But what can you do?”

U.S. to ban oil imports from Russia as White House explores drastic plans to buffer economy from energy shock

About a mile away, 26-year-old Baton Rouge resident Tia Washington capped her gas purchase at $6.

“I’m just doing a little at a time,” she said. “I’ve been driving around on ‘E’ a lot more.”

The Amazon warehouse worker said she’s been trying to earn more money on the side through DoorDash, noting an influx of business since gas prices spiked and more people choose to stay home and order takeout.

Personal budgetary concerns trumped worries about battles in Ukraine, she said — at least for the moment. With a fiance in the U.S. Army, though, she said her concern might grow in the days and weeks ahead.

“For right now, though, I think it’s more just figuring out how to get around,” she said. “Has this been cutting into my budget? Hell yeah.”

About 1,000 miles north in Milwaukee, Nana Akuva Taylor has been watching her go-to BP station warily. Before Christmas, it cost her $25 to fill up. Now, it’s $43.

“I don’t know if it’s even worth driving Uber anymore,” said the 45-year-old native of Ghana who lost her job in social work in November.

She drives her son 15 minutes to school every morning, then turns on the Uber app and doesn’t stop for eight hours. She’s doesn’t work Sundays for church and family time, and spends every Monday working on job applications. At first, life behind the wheel was fine. Then came the surge in fuel prices, which cut severely into her profits since other factors — rates and tips — haven’t changed.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has her further on edge, she said, thinking about the innocent lives lost.

“The trickle-down effect is now on us, bearing the cost of whatever it is you’re fighting about. And I don’t like it,” Taylor said. Still, she added, she’s willing to sacrifice more if, as expected, further U.S. sanctions against Russia send gas prices higher.

Broad swaths of the U.S. economy are facing the compounding consequences of the hike in fuel prices — which are coming atop broader price rises.

Inside the low-slung headquarters of Gnos Bros. Inc. in Dixon, Calif., three generations of family farmers quietly pored over the numbers. For Craig Gnos, 56, president of the decades-old Solano County business that grows tomatoes used for processing, counting costs is a fact of life.

“Fuel is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Gnos, with his son Christopher and father Herman working in a small room beside his. “We use liquid nitrogen fertilizer, for example. Last year it was running a little north of $300 a ton. Now it’s $850.”

As Gnos spoke, a massive tanker wheeled onto the property to top off his largest diesel fuel containers — a hedge against the price spikes sure to come, he said. Gnos can keep about 30,000 gallons on hand, roughly enough to run the business’s groundwork equipment until June.

“I’ll burn about 200,000 gallons of diesel a year,” Gnos said. While those costs are jumping, his family’s tomato prices are locked in. “If costs go up, we just have to deal with it. I call us the bottom of the food chain.”

The spiking prices across the country, influenced by the Russian war and international market forces, had many Americans eyeing Biden’s handling of the crisis.

Analysis: Will producing more oil lower gas prices? It hasn’t in the past.

Newton Starkey, a 61-year-old contractor from Baton Rouge, said he’s cutting down driving his 2012 F-150. Traveling the 50-or-so miles to and from work every day went from costing about $8 or $10 a day to double that in recent weeks, he said. He’s cut back on eating out and is perusing listings for a motorcycle.

While the conflict in Ukraine has helped spur the price rises, Starkey said he pins more of the blame on “the man in the White House.”

Others see the eye-popping gas prices as an urgent prompt to shift from fossil fuels toward cleaner renewable energy, including solar, wind and transitioning to electric vehicles, priorities of the Biden administration.

Biden’s ban on Russian oil imports “is a good decision,” said Dinesh Khadka, 45, who was filling up in Davis, Calif., on Tuesday — at $5.77 a gallon.

“I will take any heat that comes along with that, prices going up or whatever, because that is the right thing to do,” said Khadka, who works as a table-games supervisor at a casino. His daily round-trip commute is 60 miles, and his budget is fixed. He said he will cut out some car trips that aren’t work-related. Still, Khadka said, he thinks globally.

“In the big picture, we need to be moving away faster from our dependence on oil, toward alternative sources. We have to overhaul our system,” he said. He bought $10 worth of gas to hold him over until he might find something cheaper.

Within two hours, the Chevron station raised its prices by 12 more cents a gallon.

Wadsworth reported from Baton Rouge; Kreidler from Davis and Dixon, Calif.; and Simmons from Milwaukee.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly rendered a person’s middle name in the story and a caption. She is Nana Avuka Taylor, not Nana Avukar Taylor. The article is corrected.