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How high can price of gas go?

The average price at the pump in Western New York has gone up to $2.95 a gallon -- and in some spots it has surpassed the $3 mark.

The Mobil station at Elmwood and Forest avenues, across from Buffalo Psychiatric Center, was at a whopping $3.09 Friday.

And it has everyone wondering: Will it get worse?

The experts are divided.

Many believe that gas prices have nearly peaked and will come back down soon.

"I think that the peak for gasoline is in sight," said Andrew Lebow, senior vice president of the energy division at Man Financial in New York City.

But there are other fuel-watchers who fear prices could go up to $4 a gallon.

"I am in the camp that we will go higher, perhaps a lot higher," said Phil Flynn, an oil analyst for Chicago-based Alaron Trading.

But all agree that just one major disruption -- whether a problem at a U.S. refinery or a crisis in the Middle East or other oil-producing region -- could send prices skyrocketing.

Wally Smith, vice president of the AAA of Western and Central New York, explained that the recent U.S. increases are due to both routine and unexpected reasons.

"Refineries get shut down in the spring for maintenance," he explained. In addition, several refineries also switch from a winter blend to a summer blend of gasoline around this time, forcing them to shut down temporarily. "Then there's been problems with fires at refineries [on the West Coast]," he said.

"We're hoping that as the refineries get back on line . . . we'll see some price reductions in the near future," Smith said.

Adding to the problem is the fact that no new crude oil refineries have been built in this country in 30 years and that many just aren't as productive as they used to be, Smith said.

Gas prices have bounced up and down since the fall of 2005, when hurricanes devastated the Gulf Coast's oil infrastructure.

Rising gas prices have been hard on motorists everywhere but have hit local charities especially hard.

"It's impacted all of our services," lamented Mark Zirnheld, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Western New York.

The charity offers a donation pickup service but has had to pick and choose where it's willing to send its trucks. "People want to donate, but if it's one small bag of clothes . . . To drive a large truck 20, 30 miles, it's just not the best use of vehicles," he said.

Volunteers who help prepare and serve hot meals, such as Meals on Wheels, also are feeling the pinch, with some having to car pool or cut back on the days they can help out to conserve on gas costs.

"A lot of our volunteers are retirees on fixed incomes . . . who now have to watch how much gas they're using," Zirnheld said.

Associated Press reports contributed to this report.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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