Rising crude, wholesale prices are felt at pump

Rising oil prices and a big jump in wholesale gasoline prices are major contributors to the sudden spike in retail pump prices in North Texas, according to energy analysts and fuel marketers.

Many motorists in Tarrant County and outlying areas were shocked this week to see retail gasoline prices skyrocket 10 to 18 cents overnight at convenience stores and service stations where they refuel.

The average price for a gallon of regular self-service gas was $2.94 Wednesday in Fort Worth-Arlington, up 3 cents from a day earlier, according to a report by auto club AAA, Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.

Some retailers are selling regular for more than $3, the Star-Telegram reported Wednesday. That's the first time it has topped $3 in North Texas since 2008, when both oil and gasoline prices hit record highs in the summer before plunging dramatically.

Numerous retailers priced regular at $2.99 -- actually, $2.99.9, one-tenth of a cent short of three bucks.

Todd First, executive vice president of business development for Ricochet Fuel Distributors, said Wednesday that the Euless-based company saw about a 12-cent jump in wholesale "rack" prices in a recent three-day period.

With wholesale prices soaring, gasoline retailers who might already be faced with "pretty thin" profit margins for fuel sales "can't just sit on" the lower pump prices they had been charging, First said.

Steadily rising oil prices have also contributed to higher gasoline prices, based on strong global petroleum demand, First said. "Just look at what China is burning," he said, referring to escalating energy demand in the world's most populous nation.

Strong demand for heating oil, particularly in the northeastern U.S., could also be putting upward pressure on prices for petroleum products, he said.

In futures trading Wednesday on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a barrel of benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil rose 75 cents to settle at $91.86, a 27-month high, in contracts for February delivery.

Oil prices are up about $20 a barrel since August.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, said in an e-mail Wednesday that "wholesale gasoline prices have been consistently moving higher since early November and have chugged some 10 to 15 cents higher so far in 2011."

Kloza said his "guess" is that some "big-box" gasoline retailers such as Costco and Sam's Club have been selling fuel at "extremely close to cost" to lure consumers into their stores. But with wholesale prices now climbing at accelerating rates, gasoline retailers face mounting pressure to boost their pump prices, he said.

If one retailer raises prices, it makes it easier for nearby competing retailers to follow suit. A cashier at a small Fort Worth service station about four miles northwest of downtown told the Star-Telegram that it raised pump prices 10 cents a gallon Tuesday after a bigger competitor boosted its price.

First said some retailers are probably raising prices because they have exhausted supplies bought at an appreciably lower wholesale cost. Retailers might receive new fuel shipments roughly "every week or every other week," he said, depending on storage tank capacity and sales volume.

Jack Z. Smith, 817-390-7724