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Gas price puzzler

THE drop in crude oil prices continues, with the cost to refiners down by more than $2 a barrel since last July. But motorists this summer are paying as much a 10 cents more a gallon for gasoline than they were just four months ago. What's going on here?

Oil marketing experts, both inside and outside the industry, point to several factors: An oversupply of gasoline last winter depressed prices abnormally; the cost of phasing out use of lead to obtain high octane ratings in ``regular'' gasoline is being passed along to consumers; demand for gasoline is stronger now than for most other petroleum, giving refiners and dealers a chance to recoup some of the profit margin sacrificed in the past year or so.

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US Energy Secretary John Herrington said last week that his department is ``looking at [the situation] pretty carefully.'' Such examination seems warranted in order to see that consumers are getting a fair deal.

Mr. Herrington says he expects a ``price break'' after the vacation season. That seems a reasonable expectation if crude oil prices continue to decline or even stabilize at current levels.

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