WHEN I HEARD that world oil prices had turned negative – that sellers were paying buyers to take it off their hands – primitive but long-dormant instincts kicked in.
I jumped into my car and headed out to see if gas stations on Aquidneck Island were going to pay me to fill it up.
That’s because I’m of a generation addicted to bargain gas. This precedes even the gasoline price-spike crises of the 1970s.
In the 1960s, for example, I lived in Massachusetts, and remember people driving to Rhode Island, where, rumor had it, gas was cheap.
These were the days before most of us had heard of algorithms, particularly ones that could figure out whether the net cost of a roundtrip to Rhode Island to save 0.0002 cents for each gallon of gas worked out in your favor.
Not that it would have mattered. What counted was the pursuit of cheaper gas, the triumph of scoring and then bragging about it.
Later, of course, when OPEC oil barons decided to put the squeeze on the rest of the world, prices skyrocketed. (“Skyrocket” and its derivations became the most widely used words by newspapers). Long lines formed at service stations, brought on by panic buying, which upset supply-and-demand equations, which produced sermons and editorials about the sin of “topping off” your tank, which amounted to hording. In those days, the rise or fall of retail gas prices was always front page news, because for many families and businesses, it was the difference between economic life and death.
Which is why, even now, hunting for cheap gas is an obsession that drove me out of the house yesterday on an Odyssey to 14 gas stations in Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth.
FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS. My car started on the first try.
Cars do that nowadays, I realize that. But it’s another leftover worry for those of us who’ve been around too long that a car that hasn’t left the driveway or the barn for a while might not fire up on the first, second or the fourteenth try.
Now, the bad news.
The people who used to sell gas to consumers are still selling it. And they’re definitely are not giving it away.
I don’t know why I’m surprised. Maybe in my lower brain stem, where desire overpowers reason, I was hoping to find hand-scrawled signs reflecting the new world order:
“WE PAY U”
“ALL GAS STATIONS PAY YOU FOR GAS. BUT AT ESSO, WE ALSO:
- GIVE YOU 2 CASES OF DIET COKE OR PEPSI – YOUR CHOICE – CARRIED RIGHT TO YOUR CAR
- PLUS: 5 SNICKERS BARS
- AND 100 N-95 FACEMASKS DONATED TO NEWPORT HOSPITAL, IN YOUR NAME!
“GAS IS ALWAYS FREE AT ‘NO-PAY @ RAY’S.’ WHAT’S MORE, WE’LL PUMP YOUR GAS & WASH YOUR WINDSHILD!”
Quite the opposite. The LED price sign at my first stop, where I usually buy gas, a Shell station at the corner of Thames Street and Lee Avenue in Newport, had a posted price of $2.39 per gallon.
And the embarrassing part was that I had absolutely no way of knowing whether that was a bargain. That’s because I couldn’t remember the last time I bought gas, much less what I paid for it. That’s when I went looking at other prices.
WHEN I GOT HOME, I called Lloyd Albert, senior vice president for public and government affairs at AAA Northeast, the big auto and travel organization which is headquartered in Providence.
When I used to write endless (but well-read) newspaper stories about gas prices, AAA was the place to call for the best information, and it still is.
Albert noted there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between what’s happening on world oil markets and what you pay when filling your gas tank. It takes time for the trends to work through the system.
But Albert said that prices have dropped since the coronavirus crisis, because measures to slow the spread of the virus have brought travel by land and air to a halt, along with the rest of the economy.
“They are in free-fall,” he said of the drop in prices.
Triple-A does a daily price roundup, and the Rhode Island average price of a gallon of “regular” today (April 22) was $1.955. That compares to $2.745 a year ago, a drop of about 79 cents or almost 30 percent.
The daily survey even breaks down the prices by county, and Newport County had an average price of $2.171. Albert says that Aquidneck Island’s three communities, plus Jamestown, Tiverton and Little Compton have slightly higher average prices than the rest of the state, apparently due to transportation costs.
My tour yesterday of 14 stations from Newport to Portsmouth found a slightly higher average: $2.24. (I’m leaving off that last 9/10th you see on the signs).The apparent lowest price was a Sunoco station on West Main Road in Middletown, across from O’Neil Boulevard, with a pay-by-cash price of $2.13, but $2.23 to pay by credit card, a popular price at many other stations. A Mobil station in Portsmouth at West Main and Stringham Roads advertised regular at $2.19.
WHAT THIS MEANS, as Albert told me, is that gas is a bargain, no matter where you go; and that when it comes to gas, it’s an excellent time to be a consumer.
“Ironically, the consumers aren’t seeing the benefit of lower prices,” Albert added, since for many of us, there’s no reason to do much driving, which is why there’s no demand for gas, which is why the price is so low.
In my case, I did find a receipt for my last purchase.
It was March 15, at 3:12 p.m. at that Shell station where I began my bargain hunt. Back five weeks ago, I paid $2.45 at Pump #5 for 8.4 gallons of regular. The price yesterday and this morning was $2.39, a drop of 6 cents or 2 ½ percent.
So, what did I do, having found the cheapest gas my tour?
My tank is more than half full, with no place to go.