NEW YORK – Gasoline prices are getting an early start on their annual spring march higher.
The average U.S. retail price rose 13 cents over the past two weeks to $3.42 a gallon, and within a few days it will likely set a record for this time of year.
The culprits: Rising crude oil prices, slowing output at refineries that are undergoing maintenance, and low supplies of gasoline.
These are the kinds of things that push gasoline prices higher every spring after what is normally a lull in gas prices in the late fall and early winter. But a heavy schedule of January maintenance at West Coast refineries has led to sharply higher prices there. Meanwhile, low inventories have pushed prices higher on the East Coast.
And rising crude oil prices have pushed prices higher throughout the country.
Im not surprised at what Im seeing, but I am surprised its coming early, said Tom Kloza, Chief Oil Analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.
Hopes of stronger economic growth in the U.S. and abroad helped push the U.S. stock market to a five-year high in January and sent crude prices up.
When economies expand, more gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are consumed by shippers and travelers.
Crude oil has risen 14 percent since mid-December, to $97.49 on Thursday. Brent crude, the benchmark used to price oil that most U.S. refineries use to make gasoline, is up 9 percent since then to $115.55
But gasoline wholesale prices are rising even faster. Thats the price distributors and service stations pay to buy the gasoline that they then sell to drivers.
Retail gasoline prices have risen for 14 days straight, according to AAA. The average price for the month of January was $3.32, the second-highest January average ever, although a nickel cheaper than last years record.
In the last two years, gasoline prices rose sharply at the beginning of the year because tensions in the Middle East raised fears of supply disruptions.
In 2011 it was the Libyan uprising; in 2012 it was Irans threat to close a key shipping lane.
So far in 2013, gas has been cheaper than it was last year. But that could change by this weekend as stations pass along the cost of their higher-priced gasoline to drivers.
The national average price has risen in nine of the last 10 Februarys. Last year, gasoline prices jumped 28 cents, or 8 percent, in February and averaged $3.55 for the month.