Americans may hit gas again after reserve release

Fri Jun 24, 2011 3:47pm EDT

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* Drivers hopeful, and somewhat thankful

* Some question Obama's political motives

* Ditching the BMW for a Dodge Caliber

By Tom Brown and Peter Henderson

MIAMI/SAN FRANCISCO, June 24 (Reuters) - Going lightly on the gas pedal, getting a few dollars of gas rather than filling up, cutting out the cruising, and swapping the BMW for a Dodge Caliber -- those are ways Americans are coping with gasoline prices well above $3 a gallon.

But people pumping gas on Friday from Miami to San Francisco saw prospects for lower prices thanks to President Barack Obama's decision on Thursday to tap the country's emergency petroleum stockpile as part of a global effort to bolster tight oil supplies.

The release of 30 million barrels from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve may not make people reschedule long summer road trips but could spell welcome relief for household budgets crimped by an anemic economic recovery.

While it might be a political move by Obama to help his re-election bid for 2012, as some speculate, most drivers seemed happy to get a break, even a small one.

Jonathan Sifuentes, a 26-year-old power company employee, called the decision "the right thing to do" as he fueled up a Toyota Camry sedan on Miami's outskirts.

"Everyone is hurting, with the economy, and unfortunately we do need gas to maintain our lifestyle, to go to work, to get groceries, to pick up our kids," he said.

Gasoline prices have fallen about 30 cents since the beginning of May to an average of $3.65 a gallon, but the U.S. Department of Energy said it expected gasoline to average $3.75 a gallon this summer, up 99 cents from last year.

While U.S. gas prices may look like a steal to a European, Americans rely more on the stuff. The American lifestyle built around the car and cheap gas prices, for all the work on mass transit and renewable energy, is not going away.

Some drivers hoped the reserve release would help bring down gas prices as much as 50 to 75 cents per gallon. But Dales Feild, a 55-year-old retired General Motors Co (GM.N) assembly worker in Detroit who likes to go shopping and cruising around town for the fun of it, said she did not expect to see a gallon below $3 again, ever.

"I was surprised when it did it once, I don't think it'll happen again," Feild said as she filled the tank of her navy blue GMC Sonoma pickup truck.

'NOT AN EMERGENCY'

Chicagoan Jackson Donnie, a 29-year-old landlord, had stopped filling his gas tank, putting in $20 each time, and was often perilously close to empty. He was walking more or riding his scooter. Obama, he said, felt America's pain at the pumps.

"I think what he did is just to give the economy a break because we were so uptight," said Donnie. "He feels for us. He's a human being just like we are."

Diana Crane, 59, was buying $15 worth of gas at a Houston Valero station for her Ford Focus. She said Obama's motives might have been political, but she did not really care.

"He's trying to make people feel good." said Crane. "If they feel good, maybe they'll vote for him. That's what politicians do. Isn't the government supposed to be for the people?"

Not everyone was willing to give Obama credit for doing the right thing, like Los Angeles nurse Igor Piligramm, 45.

"That's a bad idea because emergency supplies exist for emergencies," he said as he filled up his sedan in Hollywood. "This is not an emergency."

While there might not be many options for short-term relief, the high gas prices and the release of vast reserves, only the third in history, inevitably led drivers to talk about the need for long-term solutions, from America pumping more of its own gas to investing in renewable energy.

The latter is particularly popular in a green energy hotbed like San Francisco, where Praneal Narayan, a software company employee, was pumping gas in his Lexus.

"It feels like there is always some excuse for the price of fuel going up," he said. "Alternative energy is what we should really be focused on instead of what is the price of fuel today."

Until the long-term fixes come through, drivers just need to find the way to make it through the month, like 48-year-old San Francisco yacht captain Yohy Bitton.

Bitton was filling up for a drive down the California coast for the weekend, but he was not taking his own gas- guzzling BMW. He rented a compact Dodge Caliber.

"I'm driving to LA. I'd rather drive this," he said. "The mileage is better, it seems. Much better." (Additional reporting by Bruce Nichols in Houston, Euanju Lie in Chicago, Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit and Mary Slosson in Los Angeles; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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