Gas prices get early jump on spring

It's unlikely we'll see repeat of last year's meteoric rise
A man checks gas prices at a Mobil gas station in Chicago. Gasoline prices are climbing as rising economic growth boosts oil prices and temporary refinery outages crimp gasoline supplies on the East and West Coasts.AP

NEW YORK — Gasoline prices are getting an early start on their annual spring march higher.

The average U.S. retail price rose 13 cents over the past two weeks to $3.42 per gallon, and within a few days it will likely set a record for this time of year.

The culprits: Rising crude oil prices, slowing output at refineries that are undergoing maintenance, and low supplies of gasoline.

These are the kinds of things that push gasoline prices higher every spring after what is normally a lull in gasoline prices in the late fall and early winter. But a heavy schedule of January maintenance at West Coast refineries has led to sharply higher prices there. Meanwhile, low inventories have pushed prices higher on the East Coast.

And rising crude oil prices have pushed prices higher throughout the country.

"I'm not surprised at what I'm seeing, but I am surprised it's coming early," said Tom Kloza, Chief Oil Analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

Hopes of stronger economic growth in the U.S. and abroad helped push the U.S. stock market to a five-year high in January and sent crude prices up. When economies expand, more gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are consumed by shippers and travelers.

Crude oil has risen 14 percent since mid-December, to $97.49 on Thursday. Brent crude, the benchmark used to price oil that most U.S. refineries use to make gasoline, is up 9 percent since then to $115.55

But gasoline wholesale prices are rising even faster. That's the price distributors and service stations pay to buy the gasoline that they then sell to drivers. Wholesale prices in California are up 56 cents — a 20 percent jump — to $3.32 per gallon, in just two weeks, according to Kloza. Many California drivers will soon see $4 a gallon at local stations. Smaller but still substantial jumps are being seen throughout the country.

Retail gasoline prices have risen for 14 days straight, according to AAA. The average price for the month of January was $3.32, the second highest January average ever, although a nickel cheaper than last year's record. In each of the past two years gasoline prices rose sharply at the beginning of the year because tensions in the Middle East raised fears that oil supplies would be disrupted. In 2011 it was the Libyan uprising; in 2012 it was Iran's threat to close a key shipping lane.

So far in 2013, gas has been cheaper than it was last year. But that could change by this weekend as stations pass along the cost of their higher priced gasoline to drivers.


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