Drivers are getting hit in the pocketbook by gasoline prices that have spiked about 50 cents a gallon in the past month, but the soaring prices may ease off in coming weeks.
One analyst attributed higher gasoline prices to speculators trying to get a jump on the seasonal switch to summer blends, which is still about a month away. The nation saw a similar spike last March, followed by a decline that pushed prices below $3 a gallon at some stations in North Texas by November and December.
As of Monday, Fort Worth-Arlington drivers were paying an average $3.59 a gallon for regular, up 12 cents in the past week and up 51 cents from a month ago, according to the daily survey by auto club AAA and Oil Price Information Service. Compared to a year ago, prices are up about a dime a gallon.
It could be worse. The national average is $3.73, and Californians are paying an average $4.16 for the unique gasoline formulation designed to cut that state's notorious smog.
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But it might not be so bad in 2013 overall.
The U.S. Energy Information Service last week said it expected gasoline prices to average $3.55 a gallon in 2013, based on its outlook for lower crude oil prices. Oil Price Information Service also forecasts prices on average to be below last year, which was the most expensive on record for American drivers.
OPIS said Americans in 2012 spent about $479 billion on gasoline, topping the previous record of $471 billion in 2011.
An early spring spike in gasoline prices is getting to be an annual event, and it's coming earlier this year, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at OPIS.
Gasoline prices typically rise in the spring as refineries start their switch to making summer blends, which are required in areas with air pollution problems and are more costly to produce. The added expense is generally estimated at between 10 and 15 cents a gallon.
For example, AAA Texas spokesman Doug Shupe said Texas refineries usually start retooling to make summer gasoline in March.
And as analysts at GasBuddy.com observed in their 2013 outlook, "problems typically arise from plant restarts" from the changeover and maintenance, typically undertaken at the same time.
"The trading community anticipates the change and all the refinery work happening now and in the next 40 days or so," the bets start to pile up, Kloza said.
"There's a lot of money chasing commodity prices higher. Gasoline and crude oil prices tend to run up in the first quarter," he said. "We've seen this movie before. It ends with an over-reaction on the upside" before subsiding.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said he and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced a measure aimed at limiting speculation. The bill would prohibit "new investments in commodity index funds with energy commodities," according to a news release on Markey's website.
The upward momentum in crude oil prices, which accounts for most of gasoline's cost, has already stalled. Futures prices for West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark crude, and Brent, the international benchmark, had been up nearly 10 percent in the year's first several weeks. But that quick run-up ended the past two weeks and prices are off their highs.
Kloza said rising oil production in the United States should help keep a lid on prices. Domestic production in 2012 was the highest in 20 years, the International Energy Agency said last week.
"This is not the march to $4.50 or $5 gasoline for the country," Kloza said. "We'll peak early and it'll come off."
Shupe, the AAA spokesman, said drivers should do what they can to trim gasoline consumption. Keep tires inflated, avoid jackrabbit starts and stops and keep your speed down. He said every 5 miles per hour you drive over 60 mph "is like spending another 24 cents a gallon" for fuel, citing U.S. Department of Energy data.
Jim Fuquay, 817-390-7552