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Gasoline prices rise

The U.S. average climbs for the first time since Sept. 15. California sees its third straight weekly increase.

January 06, 2009|Ronald D. White

Gasoline prices jumped during the last week across much of the nation, the Energy Department said Monday, as rising oil prices interrupted an unprecedented plunge in fuel costs.

California's average gasoline prices increased for the third straight week because of decreased supply from refinery problems and other market factors.

The U.S. average price for self-serve regular gasoline climbed 7.1 cents to $1.684 a gallon, according to the Energy Department's weekly survey of filling stations. That was $1.425 below the year-earlier price.

It was the first increase in the national average since Sept. 15, when a short-lived shortage in gas supplies related to Hurricane Ike caused a one-week surge. Prices had otherwise plunged steadily from the all-time high of $4.114 a gallon July 7.

California's average price rose 6.4 cents to $1.874 a gallon. The state price was $1.454 below the year-earlier average.

Crude oil futures for February delivery climbed $2.47 to close at $48.81 a barrel Monday on the New York Mercantile Exchange on concerns about Middle East violence and decisions by the U.S. and China to increase their strategic oil reserves.

Traders also reacted to news that an Iranian military commander suggested withholding oil supplies as a way to pressure Israel's allies to make it stop its military incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Philip K. Verleger Jr., an expert in oil markets and a professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, said it was difficult to tell whether the rally would continue.

"Oil at $50, $60 or even $80 would mean that the economies were growing again. Alternative energy programs that could reduce reliance on foreign oil would proceed," Verleger said.

"On the other hand, the difference between a year at $30 a barrel and a year at $70 a barrel would be $100 billion or more out of the U.S. economy. Short term, you want oil lower."

Motorists probably won't see last week's retail prices again at least until July, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.

"That was probably the bottom," said Kloza, adding that $2 a gallon to $2.10 a gallon gasoline was probably coming to stations in California after a sharp rise in the price of gasoline on the wholesale market from less than 86 cents a gallon Dec. 5 to about $1.49 on Monday.

Kloza blamed refinery problems, refinery maintenance, and the fact that California refiners had upped their production of cheaper grade gasoline for sale to other states while producing less California-grade fuel.

Despite the relatively cheap fuel prices, Americans are unlikely to return to their old driving habits because they began making deep and fundamental changes in their lifestyles years ago, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

In the report, "The Road Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the U.S.," authors Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer said that Americans' driving, as measured by vehicle miles traveled, had begun to level out as far back as 2004 and dropped in 2007 for the first time in 27 years, well before 2008's record fuel prices.

"This is not just the result of fuel prices. Something more has been going on in America in terms of changing the way we travel," said Puentes, noting that the U.S. has seen the highest rates of mass transit ridership since 1950 and that Amtrak had a record year for passengers in 2008.


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