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When the Dept. of Energy released its weekly report yesterday refinery utilization rates by region showed the East Coast refineries operating at 55.8%, by far the lowest rate in the country.

The east coast's low output is directly tied to the closings of several Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips refineries...And we reported earlier on these and also that Colonial Pipeline has taken steps to increase capacity there. But Colonial's efforts may not be enough...

Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker said this morning that he could not speculate on whether Colonial's expansion in the northeast will be enough by itself to sufficiently compensate for the lost refinery capacity. "Colonial's role is to transport the fuel from the refineries to the marketplaces; what's happening there is beyond that. Last year we announced a 300,000 barrel a day capacity expansion that we completed... We've had expansion in the south that also serves the northeast because it increases the flow of product there. And we added a new tank in Linden, NJ for the NY Harbor business (218,000 bpd tank) and that was in service at the beginning of the year."

Today it looks like the diminished refinery capacity is putting the squeeze on the northeast. The northeastern region on average is paying slightly more than 40 cents per gallon more than they paid a year ago on this date. Connecticut's 44.cents per gallon increase over last year leads the region while Pennsylvanians are paying 42 cents more today than a year ago. Residents of New Jersey, New York, Maine, Delaware are all paying 41 cents more today than a year ago.

The southeast is being hit just as hard and overall the east coast is bearing the brunt of it. Of the 14 states paying 40 cents per gallon (or more) versus a year ago, 12 are in the east. Texas and Alaska are the only two western states with increases over 40 cents per gallon.

Individually, N. Carolina which enacted a controversial gas tax icrease in January, leads the nation with the highest retail price increase over last year. With a state average today at $3.58 per gallon, folks in the Tar Heel state are paying 51 cents per gallon more today than they paid on this date a year ago. For vehicles that have gas tank capacity of 16 gallons, those motorists could be paying as much as $8.16 more today to fill up their tank.

Other east coast states have posted similarly high increases. After N. Carolina (.51), Georgia (.47); Florida (.49), Maryland (.47) and Virginia (.46) round out the five states with the greatest increases.

West coast states are the most fortunate on this measure, with Montana recording the lowest change from year-ago prices. At $3.05 today, Utah's average price of gasoline is just 4 cents more than last year! Colorado (.05), Montana (.06) Idaho (.10) and Wyoming (.12) round at the five states with the lowest price differences.