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N.C. gas is priciest in lower 48

Suddenly, North Carolina has the priciest gasoline in the lower 48 states.

Tar Heel motorists were paying an average $3.794 per gallon of regular Tuesday. That's 31 cents more than the national average -- and higher than in any other state this side of Alaska and Hawaii.

Industry and government officials say Hurricane Ike is still to blame.

Nearly a month after Ike shut down the Gulf refineries that supply 85 percent of North Carolina's gas, the pipelines are running again at full throttle. But supplies are still short at hundreds of gas stations from the Triangle to the mountains.

Triangle motorists were paying an average $3.841 Tuesday, and some stations were out of premium. Gas is more plentiful in eastern counties -- thanks in part to extra deliveries by sea at the Wilmington port. Some Wilmington stations posted prices Monday below $3.40.

Mike Stater of Clayton wondered why Triangle motorists were paying so much more.

"At the $90 per barrel price for crude, shouldn't [gas] prices be back down in the ranges they were a year ago?" said Stater, 60. "Sounds like some gouging going on to me."

North Carolina motorists first accused retailers of overcharging when prices surged in mid-September. In response, the Attorney General's Office asked some gas stations to provide financial records. A spokeswoman declined Tuesday to comment on whether the investigation has turned up evidence of price gouging.

Burning gas for gas

Much of the gas we've been burning for the past few weeks did not come from pipeline terminals in Selma, Greensboro or Spartanburg, S.C., which normally supply two-thirds of the state. Instead, it came hundreds of miles by truck, from as far as Florida and Indiana.

"We had to ship it from Jacksonville, Fla., to Charlotte, just to get some of those stations wet," said Pete Sodini, president of the Pantry, a Sanford-based chain that sells gas at 1,600 convenience stores in 11 states. "It cost almost 30 cents a gallon to truck it from Jacksonville, but we had no choice."

Carol Gifford, spokeswoman for Charlotte-based AAA Carolinas, said tanker convoys relieved the severe gas droughts in Charlotte and Asheville, but at a cost. "It kept our prices as high as they were and still are," Gifford said.

Bill Weatherspoon of Raleigh, a lobbyist for big oil producers, said Hurricanes Gustav and Ike were reminders that North Carolina can be hurt by weather far away. "There are storms regularly that come through our state but don't do nearly the harm to our fuel system that a storm does down in the gulf," Weatherspoon said.

Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas are most heavily dependent on the gulf pipelines. All four states still have average gas prices above $3.65 a gallon.

Hurricane Katrina's impact on Triangle prices was somewhat more dramatic than Ike's but more short-lived. When Katrina struck in September 2005, Triangle gas prices shot 50 cents per gallon higher in three days -- and fell 32 cents over the next three weeks.

Ike increased Triangle prices 37 cents in three days. Now, three weeks after Ike's peak on Sept. 15, Triangle prices have fallen only 22 cents.

It wasn't clear Tuesday how long North Carolinians will have to wait until stations are fully stocked and prices fall closer to the national average. "They tell me that the amount of gasoline coming out of the pipeline and available to retailers will be normal tomorrow and is close to normal today," said Alan Hirsch, policy director for Gov. Mike Easley.

Sodini said his primary supplier, BP, still is giving stations only 70 percent of their usual allocations.

"I think you'll see a better situation by Friday, and I think you'll see prices coming down," he said.

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