Get ready for another round of pain at the pump: $4 (or higher) gasoline.
USA Today reported that after rising 19 cents a gallon in the past four weeks, regular unleaded gasoline now averages $3.48 a gallon versus $3.12 a year ago and $2.67 in February 2010.
Prices could spike another 60 cents or more by May. “I think it’s going to be a chaotic spring, with huge price increases in some places,” says Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. Kloza expects average prices to peak at $4.05, although he and other industry trackers say prices could be sharply higher in some markets.
Rising prices are an annual spring ritual, largely because of seasonal demand.
Refiners also switch from winter formulations to more expensive seasonal formulations to meet stringent environmental standards, which can tack on 15 cents a gallon, says Brian Milne of energy tracker Televent DTN.
This year’s earlier-than-usual run-up is more about anticipation than current supply and demand. Last week, the Energy Department reported anemic U.S. consumption — the lowest levels since September 2001. Domestic crude oil prices have fallen in six of the past seven trading sessions on the New York Mercantile Exchange and were about $98 a barrel Monday morning, near six-week lows.
Renewed tensions in the Middle East are bolstering crude prices, while speculators are boosting futures contracts, betting on global supply disruptions and tighter refining capacity. Kloza notes that several U.S. and overseas refiners have experienced temporary or permanent closures.
So far, $4 a gallon has proven to be the upper limit consumers will pay. Last April, national prices peaked at about $3.98 a gallon. In 2008, a sharp run-up ended when prices hit an all-time average of $4.11 a gallon that summer.
“Higher demand, Iran, lost refining capacity are all potential problems,” Milne says. “We’ll get over $4 a gallon, but it’s going to be tough to sustain that level. People will drive less.”