Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino and Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writers
Posted: 12/29/2010 08:42:50 PM PST

Diana Czarnecki still remembers a couple of years ago watching in disbelief as a driver of a sport-utility vehicle pumped $108 worth of gas into the vehicle.

“It was ridiculous,” said Czarnecki, who commutes from San Bernardino to Rancho Cucamonga. “I was so thankful for my $50 bill.”

But after a two-year reprieve, the sticker-shock experience that Czarnecki dealt with may be returning to a gas station near you – crude oil prices are nearing $100 a barrel and experts predict $4-per-gallon gas at the pump in 2011.

“That’s going to kill us all,” Ontario resident Aurora Vega said. “Thank God I don’t have to drive much.”

Gas prices in the Inland Empire rose this week from $3.25 to an average $3.29 a gallon for regular unleaded – 17 cents more than in November, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

That price is still far from the record $4.614 a gallon for San Bernardino-Riverside counties on June 22, 2008.

Analysts attributed swelling prices to the increasing price of crude oil – $91 per barrel – whose costs account for two-thirds to three-quarters of the price of gas.

Any chance that prices would drop vanished this past weekend after Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries ministers signaled oil production would not be bumped up.

“I see $4 (gas) by summer in California,” said Bob van der Valk, an oil and gas analyst for R4Refuel Inc., which supplies fuel for heavy equipment operators.

The U.S. imports about 63 percent of its total oil consumption.

As developing nations like China demand more crude, the U.S. has limited off-shore drilling after last summer’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, van der Valk said.

Motorists are seeing the results at gas stations throughout the nation, where a gallon averages more than $3 everywhere you go.

While a gallon of regular hovered at $3.29 in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Inland Empire, premium and diesel averaged $3.56, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.

“We have second-highest unemployment in the nation and they want to hike our gas,” Czarnecki said. “If oil companies had millions to clean up the Gulf spill, they can take a hit in hard times for us.”

But oil companies are not necessarily the only ones profiting from the price hikes, said James Hosmanek, an owner of Chevron Autolab and Fuel in San Bernardino.

From the $3.29 per gallon, Hosmanek’s take is usually 16 cents. The oil company takes close to $2 and the rest goes to state and federal government.

“Oil companies deserve a profit,” Hosmanek said. “After all they pumped the oil. But why does government deserve more than I make? And that’s not all. They get a percentage of my sales.”

Gas prices fluctuated throughout the western states on Wednesday, with Washington and California leading the pack. Texas, Colorado and New Mexico were in the bottom, with average prices still lingering around $2.80.

The national average added less than a penny this week to $3.061 per gallon, according to AAA. A gallon of regular unleaded was 15 cents higher than it was a month ago and 40 cents more than it was last year.

“Santa wasn’t very nice to drivers or for gas prices,” said Marie Montgomery, an Auto Club spokeswoman. “People are really looking for bargains. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to be had out there.”

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