Rural Alaska

High fuel prices lead to tough decisions in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages

St. Mary's gas prices

This story originally appeared on KYUK and is republished here with permission.

Across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, residents and villages are making tough compromises because of sky-high fuel prices. Those prices are not expected to come down anytime soon.

One hundred miles from the mouth of the Yukon River in St. Mary’s, the Crowley fuel tank farm sits tucked into a spruce grove at the base of a big hill covered in blueberry bushes.

Francis Beans, better known as Chunky, kicks up a cloud of dust with his red four-wheeler as he pulls up to the pump.

“The gas is $8.85 a gallon. It went up about two weeks ago,” said Beans.

He starts to fill up, but a little leaks out. Beans estimates what the spilled gas cost him:

“Maybe 85 cents. It’s going to be a tough year. The price of heating oil is way up there too,” said Beans.

Heating fuel in St. Mary’s costs $9.06 per gallon.

Beans said that he plans to rely more on his wood stove this winter to help keep his bills down. He finishes fueling up.

“We’ve got 2.2 gallons for $20.30. Gonna do a lot of walking this winter. Save a little and stay in health,” said Beans.

Stories like Beans’ are common in the Y-K Delta. All across the region, high fuel prices are altering people’s lifestyles and forcing cities to ration fuel and make sacrifices. Even as gas prices have begun to fall nationwide, communities in Western Alaska can still expect to pay a premium in the coming weeks. That’s according to Mike Poston with Vitus Energy. He said that it’s because in Western Alaska, communities rely on slow barges for fuel.

“You have to look at how long it takes to get from point A to point B. It’s a 60- to 90-day supply line from the time the product is moving to the time it ends up in the tanks,” said Poston.

That means Y-K Delta villages are still paying spring 2022 fuel prices, which were at record highs. The national average gas price has now dropped to $4.19 per gallon, but in the Y-K Delta people often pay twice that.

[Previously: Fuel in the Alaska village of Noatak was $16 a gallon. The costs are more than just money.]

Part of the challenge for communities reckoning with high prices is the unpredictability. Aniak’s finance director, Lenore Kameroff, said that the quote for their upcoming winter fuel purchase was more than double what it was last year. She’s cutting the town of Aniak’s fuel order in half: from 6,000 gallons to 3,000 gallons.

“It is a big strain, and it’s hard to tell what the fuel prices are going to be in the near future or even three months from now,” said Kameroff.

With half as much fuel available, the village is now facing tough decisions on what to prioritize. It’s unlikely that Aniak will be able to heat its fire department building throughout the winter, and the city is looking for help from other organizations to purchase more fuel. Charlie Lang, who works at Aniak Public Works, said that on a more basic level, the high prices have made it difficult for folks to enjoy the summer.

“Pretty much everybody cut down on joy riding and stuff like that. Now they usually only go anywhere if it’s a necessity, you know?” said Lang.

On the coast in Hooper Bay, Lori Hill, the city’s bookkeeper, said that paying $25 for 3 gallons of gas is hitting everyone hard. Some villagers are now traveling to other towns searching for lower prices, and the prohibitive cost of fuel has made it harder for people to go berry picking or subsistence fishing.

In regional hubs prices are lower, but people are still having to adapt. At the Delta Western pump in Bethel, it costs $6.73 per gallon to fill up. Scott Campbell is the manager of Bethel Trailer Court. He manages a fleet of seven maintenance vehicles that they need to regularly fuel up. He’s putting about 18 gallons of gas into one of their pickup trucks.

“This time it’s $123. I’ve had it be $200, though. That’s a small consolation that it’s a little less this time. The only good thing is it’s a company truck and I’m not paying it out of my own pocket,” said Campbell.

He said that because of the high gas prices, he’s had to cut back on the number of trips his maintenance team can take. He said that he’s not considering raising rents to offset the cost of the gas yet, but that could happen eventually.

“If it continued for a long period then we’d consider it,” said Campbell.

The last fuel barges are expected to arrive sometime in mid-October, but that depends on freeze up. Poston at Vitus Energy said that he does not expect prices at the pump to change meaningfully after those final barges come in.

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