Ruben Vasquez of Pacoima finishes pumping at a station in Calabasas in October.… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Californians had a bad year at the pump in 2012, averaging a record $4.028 for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to AAA.
That shattered the previous record, set in 2011, by 21.3 cents a gallon. The jump was so big that it surprised even people who review fuel prices on a daily basis.
"I can remember when the California average for the year in 2008 was $3.525 and we thought we would never see it go that high again," said Marie Montgomery, spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.
She noted that $4.028 "over a full year is a lot of money out of our pockets that we can't spend on other things."
California's gas prices in 2012 also helped kick the national average for a gallon of regular up to a record $3.603, which broke the previous record, set in 2011, of $3.510, AAA said.
The increase in California fuel prices in recent years is startling. In 2008, the year oil prices shot above $147 a barrel, the state averaged a then-record $3.525 for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to AAA.
The California average fell to $2.687 a gallon in 2009, then climbed back above the $3 threshold to $3.100 in 2010. In 2011, the state's average for the year jumped to $3.815 a gallon.
Since 2009, the average price that Californians pay for a gallon of regular gasoline has jumped nearly 50%.
California has some fuel factors that are unique. It's an isolated market that does not have access to cheap crude flowing from the oil boom in states such as North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma.
Its only regular source of domestic crude from outside the state is Alaska's dwindling North Slope oil fields. That means California has to import more and more foreign oil, which is substantially more expensive than U.S. crude.
California's clean-air rules also mandate a special formula of gasoline that is more expensive to make and is produced by few refineries outside the state.
Analysts have cited many reasons for the 2012 prices, including one of the worst years ever for refinery outages in California. A fire in August, for example, knocked out part of Chevron's Richmond facility, one of the state's biggest refineries.
In October, a power failure at an Exxon Mobil refinery helped send California's average price up to a record $4.671 for a gallon of regular.
But a lot of people aren't buying those explanations. Consumer groups and California's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have called on the state attorney general and the Justice Department to investigate California's volatile fuel prices.
California refineries were also exporting fuel in 2012, and an analysis by Oregon-based McCullough Research indicated that some of them may have misled the public about the amount of fuel they were producing.