Fueled by uncertainty in the Persian Gulf, gasoline prices have hit an all-time high with the average pump price jumping nearly 3 cents a gallon in the last two weeks, a leading oil analyst said Sunday.
American motorists are paying an average of $1.3835 per gallon at the pump, according to the latest Lundberg Survey of national gasoline prices, which was conducted Friday. Motorists spent an average of $1.3544 cents a gallon on Sept. 7.
The previous high of just under $1.38 was set in March, 1981.
"The new high doesn't take into account inflation, but even so, it's significant," said Trilby Lundberg, who publishes the twice-monthly Lundberg Survey of 13,000 service stations.
Oil prices have fluctuated greatly in recent days, Lundberg said Sunday, driven by fears of a war in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of neighboring Kuwait. The fear is that a war could create a serious supply upheaval and that replacing gasoline supplies could be difficult, she said.
Industry experts said Sunday that there is little hope of quick relief at the gas pumps.
"I don't see oil prices coming down as long as we have so much production off the market--what Iraq and Kuwait normally would have produced," said Kurt Wulff, an oil analyst with McDep Associates Inc., a New York-based oil and gas investment research firm. "I do see them coming down in the springtime when our consumption is less."
Lundberg's survey showed that at self-service pumps, regular unleaded gasoline sold for $1.2736 a gallon on the average, premium unleaded was $1.4405 cents a gallon and regular leaded was $1.2551 cents a gallon.
At full-service stations, regular unleaded was $1.4959 a gallon, premium unleaded was $1.6319 and regular leaded was $1.4783 cents a gallon.
At one Los Angeles Chevron station, regular gasoline was selling Sunday for $1.24 a gallon at the self-service pump and for $1.51 at the full-service pump. Self-service unleaded was $1.28, while full-service unleaded sold for $1.61. Premium unleaded ran $1.45 for self-service and $1.68 for full service.
"The general picture is that oil prices bumped up a lot in the middle of August, settled back a bit, and now we're right back where we were in the middle of August," Wulff said. "The question now is where we're headed from here. . . . If the current stalemate continues, I believe that oil prices will strengthen further."
Joseph Lastelic, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said crude oil prices started to creep up in July, then took a big jump in August. As of two weeks ago, crude oil prices had climbed more than 30 cents a gallon since the Aug. 2 invasion. But gasoline prices have jumped only about 20 cents a gallon in the same period, he said.
"This kind of proves that the (gasoline) companies are restraining the increases," he said.
Edwin Rothschild, energy policy director for Citizen Action, a Washington-based consumer group, disputed Lastelic's view of oil company restraint.
For starters, he said Sunday, although the price of crude oil fell $5 a barrel between January, 1990, and June, 1990, gasoline prices went up, "so refiners were not passing on their lower costs to consumers."
Oil companies have "shown some restraint in the last few weeks, but overall the companies have still earned a huge windfall since the beginning of August," Rothschild said. "They have slowed down the price increases somewhat for consumers, but they're passing on higher prices in the form of jet fuel and diesel fuel and home heating oil."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Average price of all grades of gas nationally in dollars. July. 20: 1.17 Aug. 10: 1.27 24: 1.33 Sept. 7: 1.35 23: 1.38