Gas prices rise to new record

March 11, 2008 8:48:15 AM PDT
The cost of filling up the family car jumped to a record high Tuesday, adding to the challenges consumers already face with falling home values and rising food prices. Gas prices at the pump rose overnight to a record national average of $3.2272 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. That's a tad higher than the previous record of $3.2265, set last May.

A year ago, rising demand and a string of refinery outages had raised concerns about supplies. Now, the soaring price of crude oil is the culprit, propelling gas higher even though supplies are at 15-year highs.

On Tuesday, light sweet crude for April delivery surged to a new record of $109.72 on the New York Mercantile Exchange before falling after the International Energy Agency cut its forecasts for crude consumption this year. In midday trading, crude futures fluctuated, rising 23 cents to $108.13 a barrel but alternating between gains and losses.

Where oil goes from here is anybody's guess. Many analysts expect prices to moderate, while others predict oil could keep rising to $120 a barrel, or higher. And with demand for gas expected to rise as warm weather arrives, analysts say pump prices will likely spike as high as $3.50 to $3.75 a gallon, regardless of what happens with oil prices.

That doesn't sit well with some consumers.

"I've got to say, if they ever go up to $3.50, that would be the point where I'd feel angry," said Alex Magby, a Morrisville, Pa., resident who was gassing up near his New Jersey restaurant job one recent afternoon. "I'd feel cheated at that point."

Still, because gas is so expensive, analysts expect demand for fuel will rise more slowly this spring and summer than in previous years. Nationwide demand for gasoline is off by about 1 percent over the last 6 weeks, a trend analysts expect to accelerate if prices keep rising.

"It evokes a real reaction in demand destruction above $3.25 a gallon," said Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.

The effect can be seen in states such as California, where prices are consistently 30 cents higher than the national average. Last November, the latest month for which data is available, demand for gasoline fell by 3.7 percent from the previous year in California as prices soared past $3.40 a gallon.

On Tuesday, the average price of a gallon of gas in California stood at $3.581 a gallon. Prices have already passed the $4 mark at many stations nationwide. But Kloza thinks slower demand growth will prevent the national average from rising that high.

High gas prices may actually help some companies that rely on tourism. Carl Wilgus, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, said the number of skiers visiting the Pennsylvania ski region this winter was up, despite gas prices holding steady above $3 for most of that time. In part, that's because many people plan vacations closer to home when fuel is so expensive, he said, giving up a trip to Florida in favor of a ski vacation an hour away, he said.

"We'll definitely lose some visitation, but hopefully we'll gain some from the folks who hope to stay closer to home," Wilgus said.

The sheer price of gassing a recreational vehicle may induce some to look for campgrounds closer to home this summer. At $3.50 a gallon, a 100-gallon Winnebago Destination RV will cost $350 to fill, $27 more than right now, and $96 more than a year ago.

Analysts believe oil's underlying supply and demand fundamentals do not support such high prices, and argue that crude's rise in recent months is mostly due to the falling dollar. Crude futures offer a hedge against a falling dollar, and oil futures bought and sold in dollars are more attractive to foreign investors when the dollar is weak.

The IEA, an energy consultant to western, industrialized nations, raised more concerns about the economic slowdown's impact on oil consumption, and cut demand growth forecasts for the U.S., Europe and other developed nations this year by about 190,000 barrels a day.

Other energy futures were mixed Tuesday. April heating oil futures fell 0.98 to $2.9636 a gallon while April gasoline futures fell 1.64 cents to $2.6985 a gallon.

April natural gas futures fell 4.7 cents to $9.977 per 1,000 cubic feet after.

In London, April Brent crude futures rose 16 cents to trade at $104.32 a barrel.

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