Gasoline prices begin spring surge early

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Nam Y. Huh /
Associated Press photo by NAM Y. HUH -- A motorist fills up at a Mobil gas station in Chicago Thursday. Gasoline prices are climbing as rising economic growth boosts oil prices and temporary refinery outages crimp gasoline supplies on the East and West Coasts.

Motorists may do a double-take at the gas station after the biggest one-day pop in pump prices in nearly two years.

The nationwide average price for a gallon of gas jumped 4 cents overnight to $3.46 a gallon on Friday, according to AAA. That makes a three-day gain of 10 cents and, for the first time in 2013, gas now costs more than it did a year ago.

The biggest increases happened out West. The average price in California rose nearly 6 cents Friday to $3.82 a gallon.

The largest previous one-day gain occurred on March 4, 2011, when the average price jumped by 4.4 cents.

Overall, gas prices are now up 17 cents this year. The main reason is a 6.5 percent increase in the price of oil.

As a consequence, gasoline prices are getting an early start on their annual spring march higher.

“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.

But a heavy schedule of January maintenance at West Coast refineries has contributed to sharply higher prices. Meanwhile, low supplies of gas have pushed prices higher on the East Coast.

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.

Retail gasoline prices have risen for 15 days straight, according to AAA, Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. The average price for the month of January was $3.32, the second-highest January average, although a nickel cheaper than last year’s record.

The national average price has risen in nine of the last 10 Februarys. Last year gasoline prices jumped 28 cents, or 8 percent, in February and averaged $3.55 for the month. Analysts still don’t expect prices to follow last year’s steep path through March that brought them to a high of $3.94 on April 6.

Meanwhile, oil rose Friday as traders took their cue from the soaring stock market, after some initial disappointment with the latest report on U.S. employment.

Benchmark oil for March delivery rose 28 cents to finish at $97.77 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Brent crude, used to price international varieties of oil, was up $1.21 to end at $116.76 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London. A suicide bomber detonated an explosive Friday in front of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, adding to concerns about possible supply disruptions due to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Crude has risen 14 percent since mid-December. 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 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.

The average price for the month of January was $3.32, the second-highest January average, although a nickel cheaper than last year’s record. In each of the last 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 changed overnight Thursday as stations pass along the cost of their higher priced gasoline to drivers.

Analysts still don’t expect prices to follow last year’s steep path through March that brought them to a high of $3.94 on April 6. Crude oil supplies are high, oil production is booming and the economy isn’t growing very fast. Also, the tensions in the Middle East seem to have eased somewhat.

And consider this as you fill up on your way to a Super Bowl party this weekend: Oil and gas analyst Stephen Schork notes that while gasoline prices may seem high, they haven’t risen nearly as fast as tickets to the big game. When the first Super Bowl was played 46 years ago, gasoline cost about 32 cents per gallon and Super Bowl tickets cost $10. Now gasoline is $3.42 and a seat in a distant corner of the Superdome costs $2,236 on the ticket-reselling site StubHub.

Put another way, a ticket to the Super Bowl in 1966 was worth about 31 gallons of gasoline then, enough for 2 fill-ups. A ticket to Sunday’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans is worth 650 gallons — enough to fill a mid-size sedan 43 times. Which makes gasoline, according to Schork, “a bargain.”