Records at the pumps

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Ken Little has seen it all in his 50 years as a truck driver. He's convinced that many drivers need to have the lead removed from their right feet if they hope to control their budgets for unleaded.

"The harder people bury their foot in that accelerator, the more gas they use," Little said Thursday in Steamboat Springs.

Fuel prices here entered uncharted territory late last week as unleaded regular gas sold for almost $2.76 a gallon at some pumps. Diesel was at $2.75.

AAA reported Wednesday that the statewide average price for regular unleaded had established a new record every day since Aug. 8. Colorado's average price Wednesday was $2.49.9. That compares with the national average of $2.56.4.

The load Little was hauling up Rabbit Ears Pass and ultimately over the Snowy Range on his way to Laramie, Wyo., last week summed up the energy situation in the United States as summer 2005 winds down.

"I'm hauling coal from Hayden to a concrete plant in Laramie," Little said.

So, Little's big rig was burning diesel to deliver relatively clean burning coal form Northwest Colorado to Wyoming, where it would fuel kilns used in the process of making concrete.

And it's safe to assume that construction costs have risen with the amount Little's employer must pay for diesel needed to deliver the coal to the customer.

"Yep, we have to charge more," Little said. His employer is urging Little and his fellow truck drivers to reduce the amount of time they leave their engines idling during a typical day.

Elsewhere in Steamboat, you could hear motorists exclaiming as they pulled up to the pumps.

"Oh my God!" Walt Rabon said as he lifted the handle at Ski Haus Conoco.

Rabon, the owner of Hot Springs Portable Spas, was hauling a hot tub on a trailer behind a Chevy pickup when he stopped to gas up on his way to Denver for a trade show.

Rabon said he drives across Routt County every week to fulfill his service contracts with spa customers.

"I find it hard to believe I'm spending $650 a month now on fuel," he said.

He pumped half a tank into the pickup Thursday and rang up $42.27.

Rabon doesn't usually drive the gleaming Chevy Silverado on his route. Instead, he drives a 1997 Chevy Astro Van because it has a smaller engine and gets between 19 and 20 miles per gallon. He hasn't raised the price he charges customers yet, but said he knows he'll have to re-evaluate in the future.

Rod Schrage, owner of Ski Haus Conoco, said customers probably would be surprised to hear him say that drivers in Steamboat are getting a relative bargain on gas this week.

"Traditionally, gas prices in Grand Junction are 5 to 10 cents lower than ours," Schrage said. "I drove all over Grand Junction yesterday and couldn't find anything lower than $2.69, and they have a pipeline running through there. People here, believe it or not, are getting a great deal. I think it's because we have too many gas stations, and it's very competitive."

Joe Caltagirone, who pulled an Audi station wagon up to the pumps at Shop-n-Hop on Thursday, was philosophical about the price of gas. Caltagirone, who spends most of the year in Sarasota, Fla., and two to three months in the Yampa Valley, has an international perspective.

"You know what? It's a limited resource," Caltagirone said. "I can't believe more Americans don't drive diesels that get better mileage."

He was accustomed to spending $4 a gallon for gas in Europe more than a decade ago and had a similar experience in South America.

"I lived in Brazil for eight years," Caltagirone said. "I used to spend $30 to fill the 10 gallon tank in a VW (bug)."

Schrage said it will be interesting to see how Yampa Valley motorists adjust their habits to increasing fuel costs. To date, his books don't reflect that anyone is cutting back because of the cost of unleaded. He suspects that some people are in denial about how world energy markets have changed -- perhaps forever. The declining numbers of small U.S. refineries, in part because of more stringent federal standards, and the enormous demand for natural resources in China permanently have increased gasoline prices, Schrage said.

"I don't think people are thinking, 'I'm going to be paying $3 for gas for the rest of my life,'" Schrage said. "When the realization settles in, which I think is going to take a year or two, I think people will think about which car they want to drive. But I don't think they'll change their lifestyles."

Top executives at the nation's airlines have called on the Bush administration to stop filling the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to even out the supply-demand equation. Little holds similar views.

"I don't know why the president lets it go on," Little said.

Even when the strategic reserve is full, gas prices may not retreat from current levels.

The Yampa Valley is outside the American mainstream, and it may be that people here won't give up their full-size pickups and SUVs.

Nelson Burrell, a local painting contractor, said he is thinking about parking his 4-year-old Ford pickup and riding one of several motorcycles he owns to work. But that might mean leaving his dog behind.

Jasmine, his Rottweiler/hound mix, looks forward to accompanying Burrell to job sites every day.

"I can't bring myself to leave her," Burrell said. Not to mention the aluminum extension ladders he often takes from one job to another within the same day.

The ultimate solution might be purchasing an '80s vintage work truck for $2,000 and reserving the shiny Ford for weekend trips to motorcycle events. That would save some of the 25,000 to 30,000 miles he puts on the Ford.

Schrage said it's not unlikely that consumers will see the price of unleaded retreat after Labor Day because of a temporary situation in which supply exceeds demand. Throughout the long haul, however, the thinks $3 a gallon gas prices are as inevitable as death and taxes.

Sherry Olson, a veteran employee behind the counter at Ski Haus Conoco, said most of her customers remain good-spirited about the rising price of gasoline. But she has an idea she thinks would help reduce gasoline price anxiety.

Olson wants to hang a cowbell over the cash register.

"Any time someone comes in and says they just paid the highest they've ever paid for gas, they get to ring the bell," Olson said.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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