Winter gasoline will bring relief at the pump

After a late-summer run-up in pump prices, relief is on the way.

Starting on Oct. 1 in Houston, drivers pulling up to the pump will fill up with winter-grade gasoline, which is cheaper for refiners to make than summer-grade gasoline.

“The drop in cost for the switchover is usually about 10 cents a gallon, and you may see the drop in price go down that much,” said Bill Day, spokesman for San Antonio-based refiner Valero Energy Corp., the nation’s largest refiner.

The switch to winter-grade fuel occurs as air temperatures are falling a bit.

“Summer-grade fuel evaporates at lower rates, which means fewer pollutants escaping into the air,” said Jennah Durant, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Dallas office.

Ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions between certain compounds emitted by vehicles’ exhaust in the presence of sunlight, and hot summer temperatures boost the formation of ozone.

Breathing ozone can trigger a range of health problems, including chest pain, coughing and throat irritation and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma, according to the EPA.

“Ozone isn’t emitted on its own,” Durant said. “It forms a lot more readily in higher temperatures, so that’s why it becomes such a concern in the summer, especially in Texas where it gets so hot.”

Many northern states switch to winter grade fuel on Sept. 15, Durant said, “because they don’t have as many concerns with ozone pollution as we do in hotter climates.”

Falling gasoline prices from winter-grade fuel would help consumers if prices don’t moderate soon on their own.

Average pump prices in Texas have jumped 19 cents in the last month, to an average $3.66 a gallon for regular unleaded on Friday, according to AAA.

In Houston, prices have climbed 21 cents a gallon in a month, to an average $3.65 a gallon.

The lower price prompted by winter-grade fuel usually reaches consumers “pretty quickly. I would say it takes about seven to 10 days,” said Andy Lipow, president of Houston-based Lipow Oil Associates, an energy consulting firm.

As the deadline for winter-grade gas approaches, gas stations will try to delay making purchases of gasoline in anticipation of getting a lower price. But that isn’t possible if the station is running low.

“You can’t run out of gasoline for your customers,” Lipow said.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, which with Wright Express surveys prices for AAA, said, that “each year, the switch seems to have a bigger impact on price.”

There will be other pressures on fuel prices, Kloza said, because the switch happens during the fall’s non-peak driving season, when there’s a drop in global demand for crude that pushes prices lower.