MISSOULA — When it comes to gas prices, Montana is often behind the times.
Which can be good or bad, depending on which direction prices are headed.
Take now, for instance. As fuel prices soar toward and even above $4 a gallon in other parts of the country as Memorial Day approaches, Montana still has the third-lowest prices in the nation.
But the state usually catches up, eventually.
And when the price of a barrel of oil starts falling again, it generally takes a lot longer for Montanans to start seeing the savings at the pump.
As of Thursday, the average price of a gallon of gas in Montana was $3.59. While that’s 63 cents a gallon higher here than it was a year ago, it’s still 20 cents less a gallon than the national average today.
According to GasBuddy.com, which tracks prices nationwide, only Wyoming ($3.51) and Colorado ($3.55) are lower than Montana. Wyoming had been the last state still clinging to below-$3.50 prices as the week started, but that quickly changed.
The average price in the most expensive four states, meantime, is already more than $4 a gallon, led as usual by Hawaii ($4.49) and California ($4.17). Alaska and Illinois have already climbed above $4 as well.
Prices typically rise as the tourist season approaches and demand rises.
But how much, exactly, does demand increase?
In January of last year, distributors reported to the Montana Department of Transportation that they shipped less than 3.8 million gallons of gasoline, ethanol blended, and diesel fuels to Missoula retailers.
In July, they sent almost 6.6 million gallons to the same retailers.
“If we have a great summer, it drives demand a lot,” said Dave Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association. “The difference in demand once summer gets here is huge.”
One of the reasons gas prices in Montana are slow to react to national trends, Galt said, is that “for the most part, we’re self-sustaining. Most of the fuel burned in Montana is refined in Montana. It takes a bit of time for that market to catch up.”
Even at that, he said 60 percent of what’s refined in Montana is shipped elsewhere — mostly east toward Minneapolis and west toward Spokane, with some headed south toward Salt Lake City.
It hasn’t been this bad since the summer of 2008, when gasoline prices peaked at a national average of $4.11 a gallon in July of that year.
Now, the bad news: Gas is already more than 40 cents a gallon higher now, in mid-April, than it was at this point in 2008, when the record highs eventually hit.
How high will it go? The Associated Press reports that most experts are sticking to forecasts of a $4 national average, but some are predicting it could reach $5.
Oddly enough, this is happening as demand in the U.S. is actually decreasing. As prices have risen, national sales have fallen for five straight weeks, with 70 percent of the country’s major gas station chains reporting slacking sales.
Half of them have reported drops of 3 percent or more, the biggest decline since prices topped $4 back in 2008.
But global demand is increasing, and unrest in north Africa and the Middle East is wreaking havoc with the market. The price of a barrel of crude oil topped $106 Thursday. It was about $83 a year ago.
Among U.S. cities, prices are currently lowest in Tucson ($3.50), but Billings makes the top five at $3.56.
Honolulu is highest at $4.37. Seventeen of the next 19 are in California, with only Chicago and Anchorage breaking into that string.