Gas Prices To Challenge Records Over Holiday Weekend

Gasoline prices are poised to challenge record highs as motorists head for the highways for the Memorial Day weekend, new figures produced by the American Automobile Association show. A gallon of regular unleaded will cost drivers an average of $1.52 and could top two dollars in Chicago.

"Everybody's saying that we're going to pay the highest prices ever this weekend," said AAA spokeswoman Myra Wieman, who pointed out that the holiday, which traditionally kicks off beach season, is only partly to blame for the surge.

Gasoline prices have spiked an average of seven to eight cents per gallon across the three grades from one month ago and between 37 and 41 cents from the same time last year. Hawaiians will pay more than residents of any other state, with prices starting at $1.87, while Georgians may consider themselves fortunate to fork over a comparatively low $1.39.

But high prices in some urban areas will drive up overall state figures, due in part to a June 1 Environmental Protection Agency deadline for the introduction of air-friendly gasoline in areas failing federal quality standards. The deadline, and producers reluctance to react, has aggravated talk among industry analysts of a domestic supply shortage.

U.S. petroleum companies have indicated they could have trouble refining enough reformulated fuel in time to meet the deadline, prompting requests for a temporary waiver from suppliers in Chicago in Milwaukee. EPA's decision is pending for the two cities. But the agency has granted a five-day grace period to St. Louis, where a recent pipeline leak caused severe supply problems.

An EPA spokesperson called the St. Louis incident a "true emergency situation."

Other areas where prices may be affected by the introduction of reformulated gasoline include metropolitan Kansas City, New York City, Dallas, Houston, New Jersey, Rhode Island and parts of New Hampshire, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

AAA, the nation's largest motorist advocacy group with over 42 million members, surveys gasoline retailers nationwide and updates figures on its Internet web site daily. The figures include national and state-by-state figures comparing current prices with those from one month and one year ago.