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Customers can shop around for deals on gas

As gas prices surge to their highest levels in 20 months, consumers may discover the best deals on fuel can be found at independent stations, according to an American Automobile Association spokesperson.

Jenny Mack of AAA's Northern California office in San Francisco said to save money consumers should "shop around" for the best deals.

"A lot of times there are good deals to be found at independent gas stations," she said.

There's really not much difference between the quality of gas from major chain stations like Chevron and that from the independents like Rotten Robbie, according to Mack.

"All gas is basically the same," Mack said. "The difference is the kinds of additives put into it."

But Ed Sans, service manager of the Los Altos Chevron station on Main Street, said these specialized additives help to maintain the car's engine.

"In my opinion, the Techron -- the additive to clean up carbon deposits in the engine -- keeps a lot of cars running smoother," he said.

In the last month, a the oil strike in Venezuela and a barrage of news items intimating an almost certain war with Iraq have driven up the price of crude oil.

Since last February, unleaded gas prices around the state have shot up 43 percent from $1.25 per gallon. On average, Bay Area gas prices have jumped 14 cents on the gallon to $1.86 in just a month, according to AAA. That's consistent with the national average.

In Los Altos, the ARCO gas station on San Antonio Road offered the lowest price for regular gas -- $1.83 per gallon -- last week, according to the Web site fuelmeup.com. The highest price for regular gas -- $2.05 per gallon -- was at the downtown Chevron.

In Mountain View, the price of regular gas was as low as $1.83 per gallon at the Valero on El Camino Real and Rotten Robbie on North Whisman Road.

In these uncertain times, the retail level is reacting much more quickly than it has in the past, Mack said, possibly due to opportunistic retailers jumping to raise prices on media reports of war.

"There is the potential that retailers are taking advantage of the news," Mack said.

Sans said the blame lies with the 45 cent federal and state tax per gallon and Chevron Texaco Corp., which fixes the price and the profit margin on the gas.

"We don't want our prices to be this high, but it's their call," Sans said. "It's out of our control."

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