Where's Gas Cheaper? It's Relative Gasoline prices can vary widely from place to place. What seems expensive in Tucson, Ariz., can seem downright cheap just up the road in Phoenix. In fact, the difference in the two cities provides a good example of how geography often affects what you pay at the pump.
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Where's Gas Cheaper? It's Relative

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Where's Gas Cheaper? It's Relative

Where's Gas Cheaper? It's Relative

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If you're like us, you've been shopping around trying to find the best price for gas. And if you're like us, you've noticed that the cost of gas can vary widely especially from one city to the next.

We sent NPR's Ted Robbins out on a mission in Arizona to find out why.

TED ROBBINS: We're going to start this story at the corner of Thomas and 7th Street in Central Phoenix. The air is a bit hazy - remember that. I'm at a Circle K gas station and convenience store. The price for a gallon of unleaded here is about the average at Phoenix $4.09.

Brendan Locke's pickup truck is at one of the pumps here. He's still amazed by $4 a gallon gas.

Mr. BRENDAN LOCKE (Truck Driver): I mean, I remember when I was some 33 or so, I don't know, about 10, 15 years ago, it was 98 cents a gallon. And then the same thing 12 years, it's jumped up this high, that's not right.

ROBBINS: But now, let's hit the road.

(Soundbite of NPR news broadcast)

ROBBINS: Interstate 10 to be exact, about 120 miles from Phoenix south to Tucson.

(Soundbite of vehicle speeding by)

ROBBINS: Well, now, I'm at another Circle K, this one in Tucson at the corner of Broadway and Cherry. And get this, the price for a gallon of unleaded here: $3.82. That's not only 27 cents a gallon cheaper than Phoenix, the average price of fuel here in Tucson is the cheapest in the country.

Ms. ASHLEY TOBIN (Circle K Customer): Oh, I feel fortunate then. I won't complain as much.

ROBBINS: Still, Ashley Tobin only fills the tank of her small SUV halfway.

Do you know why it has the cheapest gas in the country?

Ms. TOBIN: No, I do not.

ROBBINS: What - take a guess.

Ms. TOBIN: Maybe it's cheaper to transport the gas here? I have no idea.

ROBBINS: It's not transportation. Phoenix and Tucson both get their gas from the same place - a pipeline running from Texas and the Gulf Coast. The fuel is delivered to huge holding areas in each city - tank farms. That's where the difference emerges.

Remember Phoenix has hazy air? To cut down on air pollution, the government requires Phoenix stations to sell something called clean-burning gas, CBG. That blend costs more money. It's similar to California's and one of dozens of blends across the country which impact price.

Ms. ANDREA MARTINCIC (Executive Director, Arizona Petroleum Marketers Association): Because Tucson doesn't require this CBG, you're basically supplied with a sub-octane conventional fuel which is even lesser in price than a regular conventional fuel.

ROBBINS: Andrea Martincic is with the Arizona Petroleum Marketers Association, which represent wholesalers and retailers. What she's saying is that because it doesn't have Phoenix' air quality problems, Tucson starts with the cheapest fuel it can find.

Ms. MARTINCIC: And then what is done is it's blended with 10 percent ethanol, which brings the octane back up and also helps the fuel burn cleaner with the oxygenate added.

ROBBINS: And ethanol costs less because it's subsidized by the federal government. So the reason the price varies so much from place to place has to do with air quality, taxes, subsidies, and sometimes transportation. Notice I didn't mention retailers. That's because they make pennies per gallon, or right now in Tucson, stations are losing pennies per gallon because of competition. If it weren't for their convenience stores or mechanic shops, they might be out of business.

But at least for a moment, Andrea Martincic says having the lowest prices in the country is good for local PR.

Ms. MARTINCIC: I just say I'm tickled that the media is actually doing a story on low gas prices, because I'm oftentimes talking about high gas prices.

ROBBINS: Well, let's not get carried away. At $3.82 a gallon, we're not talking about low gas prices, just the lowest in the country.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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