Consumers could face all-time high gas prices by Memorial Day

The Sacramento BeeFebruary 15, 2012 

Sky-high gas prices loom mglover@sacbee.com Published Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

It's only mid-February, but energy analysts already are warning of a perfect storm that could drive gasoline prices to all-time highs when the weather warms up.

The latest evidence came in Tuesday's monthly California gas price survey released by AAA.

AAA said the average statewide price of regular unleaded gasoline climbed 15 cents from last month to $3.85 a gallon. That's on top of an 11-cent gain from December to January.

California's average at-the-pump price is now 40 cents higher than it was at this time last year.

In Northern California, the average of $3.83 was up 16 cents from the Jan. 10 AAA survey. Sacramento came in at $3.78 a gallon, up 15 cents from last month.

Nationwide, the average price was $3.51, climbing 14 cents from January. That marked the earliest time in a given year that the national average topped $3.50 a gallon.

"Retail gasoline prices have continued to slowly rise across a majority of the United States," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com. "With the exception of one state, Wyoming, all states are seeing their gasoline prices averaging over $3 a gallon again, with some of the largest cities – New York City and Los Angeles – closing in on $4 a gallon."

AAA said the average price of premium gasoline in California already tops $4, touching $4.04 on Tuesday.

At current price-gain rates and the introduction of more-expensive, warm-weather gasoline blends, analysts are predicting gas prices near $5 a gallon in major U.S. markets, including San Francisco and Chicago, by Memorial Day.

AAA records show that the nation's highest recorded average price of regular unleaded gas, $4.11 a gallon, occurred on July 17, 2008. Sacramento hit its record high of $4.57 that same day. Two days later, California hit its all-time high of $4.61.

Because the base line of current prices is so high – the average U.S. price did not surpass $3.50 a gallon in 2008 until late April – numerous analysts predict that all of those marks will be surpassed by Memorial Day or shortly thereafter.

If tensions in the Middle East escalate to disrupt oil shipments in that region, things could be worse. Production disruptions at key refineries also could create more misery at the pumps.

Also in the mix: Crude oil again closed above $100 per barrel Tuesday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

AAA spokesman Matt Skryja noted that oil investors "are looking for any influences, perceived or real, to both supply and demand."

For gas/oil investors, however, there's a twist: They like increased value but do not like gasoline prices so high that they drive down consumer demand.

To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.

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