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California gas prices peak; pump pain changes U.S. driving habits

February 28, 2013|By Ron White
  • Gas prices are displayed at a Mobil gas station in Chicago on Jan. 31. Americans have sharply reduced gasoline consumption because of high prices.
Gas prices are displayed at a Mobil gas station in Chicago on Jan. 31. Americans… (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press…)

California gasoline prices may have already peaked for the first half of the year and should head lower soon, analysts said.

Meanwhile, nationwide gasoline price averages over the first two months of the year rose at such a blistering rate that Americans were on pace to pay half a trillion dollars on gasoline in 2013 for the first time ever, analysts said.

The high prices were causing big changes in the driving habits of American motorists, with gasoline consumption dropping sharply.

And one result of the big decline in U.S. consumption was a record amount of gasoline exports by U.S. refineries, to Central and South America and even Singapore and Australia.

Overnight, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in California was unchanged at $4.238, according to the AAAFuel Gauge Report, which uses averages collected by the Oil Price Information Service.

“Los Angeles wholesale gasoline prices and oil prices have taken a nose dive in the last week, along with gasoline futures, because fuel supplies have risen and refineries have increased production,” said Auto Club spokesperson Jeffrey Spring.

The price for CARBOB, for example, which is the unfinished blend of gasoline used in California, was running about $3.09 a gallon Thursday, down sharply from a peak of $3.447 earlier this month.

It's considered unfinished because ethanol hasn't been added at that stage, and the final retail prices, often about 65 cents to 75 cents a gallon higher, include various federal, state and local taxes.

“The average Los Angeles price is still higher than the average Honolulu price, but given that local retail prices have exceeded the typical 75-cent margin over wholesale for the past three weeks, there would appear to be plenty of room for prices to drop," Spring said.

Patrick DeHaan, senior energy analyst for GasBuddy.com, said that gasoline supplies in California were also running more than 12% higher than last year, which should also move prices lower.

Americans paid more for gasoline in 2012 than ever before, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for OPIS.

That's partially why, in December, American drivers consumed 8.38 million barrels a day of gasoline, according to Energy Department statistics. While that remains a huge amount, it was 305,000 barrels a day less than the amount consumed in December 2011.

That was part of "a huge slide in U.S. demand for gasoline" that began "after Thanksgiving Day," Kloza said.

U.S. refineries responded by exporting a record 590,000 barrels a day of gasoline to foreign customers, according to Energy Department statistics.

"Some of the destinations were predictable, with Mexico getting 219,000 barrels of gasoline a day," Kloza said. "Central and South American countries dot the export spreadsheet, but leaping from the page are record purchases from Venezuela of 94,000 barrels a day."

The U.S. was also exporting gasoline to Singapore, Japan and Australia, Kloza said.

Today, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. is $3.782, according to the Fuel Gauge Report. That beat the record for Feb. 28 of $3.731 that was set in 2011.

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