BILLINGS (AP) - Some truckers say Montana's prices for diesel fuel are so high that they've been bypassing the state, but just how those prices compare to other states is not clear.
Montana recently ranks among the highest in the nation in the daily survey by Flying J, which checks prices at its nationwide chain of 163 truck stops, five of them in Montana. But Montana ranks far down the list in the national survey by AAA, which checks 60,000 stations, including stations in three Montana cities.
Rock Wilson, owner of Big Sky Express trucking company in Lavina, checks fuel prices every day on Flying J's Web site, and said Montana's prices top even California, New York and Florida.
''Truckers are bypassing the state, especially the independents who have to pay for their own fuel,'' said Wilson. ''I'm running my trucks elsewhere. I'm not bringing them here anymore.''
Wilson's four rigs burn about 15,000 gallons of diesel a month hauling exotic cars from state to state. Montana's prices have usually been near the highest since December, he said.
Wilson tries to route his trucks through Wyoming, where diesel runs about 30 cents per gallon cheaper than Montana.
The Flying J survey as of April 21 showed only Spokane, at $1.80, was higher than Montana. It said that in most states, including California, North Dakota and South Dakota, diesel was selling for about $1.50 per gallon. In Cheyenne, Wyo., it was priced at $1.31.
However, AAA Montana's latest survey shows 16 states and the District of Columbia had higher diesel prices than Montana. That survey lists Hawaii at the top, at $2.18, followed by the District of Columbia at $1.93, California at $1.86, Rhode Island and Connecticut at $1.85, and Massachusetts at $1.80.
Wilson suggests the blame lies with refineries in the Billings area, saying the state's isolation makes it easier for them to dictate prices.
Dale Getz, a spokesman for ExxonMobil refinery in Lockwood, said the three refineries in the Billings area do not collude on pricing.
''We believe in the markets, and we compete fiercely with our local competitors,'' Getz said.
Ron Planting, an economist with the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C., said fuel prices are affected by variables ranging from international politics to the cost of leases for gas stations.
State taxes also play a large role in explaining the variations between prices, he said. Volume of fuel sold also plays a role, as does the cost of hauling the fuel from the refineries.
Montana's tax on diesel is 28 cents per gallon, 11th highest in the nation and 5 cents higher than the national average, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Wyoming state taxes are 14 cents per gallon.
Most independent carriers are just waiting for improvement, said Barry ''Spook'' Stang, executive vice president of the Montana Motor Carriers Association.
''They'd rather sit idle than lose money on every trip they make,'' he said.
Stang, who was in the retail fuel business for three decades, said part of the problem is Montana's high tax, but neither the Billings refineries nor the retailers are causing the high prices. ''It's just the market in general,'' he said.
Fuel taxes collections dipped 5 percent in the final quarter of 2002, the most recent data available from the Department of Transportation. Montana-based motor carriers bought about 7.9 million gallons of fuel and traveled about 40 million miles in the state during this period.
Tax fluctuations are common, and there's no way of proving if the decrease is from truckers avoiding the state, said Bob Turner, chief of the department's fuel tax management and analysis bureau.
''If you tried to drive around Montana, you would actually spend more money in gallons,'' Turner said. ''The cost is high here, but there's nothing (the state) can do about that.''
On the Net:
Flying J: www.flyingj.com
AAA fuel price report: www.fuelgaugereport.com