Gasoline prices have jumped 20 cents in the last week in Palm Beach County. The average price for regular grade was at $3.97 Thursday, and prices at many stations are already above $4 a gallon.
Even more troublesome for motorists is the 45 cents per gallon increase locally over the last month. The 34 consecutive days of increases is the longest streak since the national average jumped 44 cents over 44 days from March 22 through May 5, 2011, AAA said.
The state average stood at $3.87 a gallon Thursday, up from $3.41 a month ago, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report.
It’s the most expensive gasoline ever in the so-called “dead of winter,” AAA said. This year’s run-up is not only larger and faster than recent years, but began earlier as refineries started seasonal maintenance sooner.
Market speculators betting since December that oil futures would rise and gradual increases in the price of oil are also to blame. A positive development Thursday was a drop in oil prices for a second day. U.S. benchmark crude fell $2.38, or 2.5 percent to close at $92.84 per barrel in New York.
The forecast calls for gasoline prices to keep rising through April or May, although the rate of increase may slow somewhat.
“We’ll get a pause here in the next couple of days, but (prices) will still be higher on St. Patrick’s Day than they are now,” said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service, Wall, N.J.
Tampa-based AAA Auto Club South spokeswoman Jessica Brady said Thursday, “In early February we start to see refineries go into their maintenance mode and cut their output and bring on the summer fuel blend.
“Aside from the seasonal factors that typically come into play at this time, it seems gas prices are much higher than they should be. It does have quite a few analysts scratching their heads,” Brady said.
Gasoline inventory is down by 2.9 million barrels, and crude oil inventory rose by 4.1 million barrels, the federal Energy Information Administration said Thursday.
“The numbers are not terribly meaningful without context,” said Gregg Laskoski, a Tampa-based senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com. “The nation’s refineries today are operating at 82 percent capacity. In mid-December they were at 91 percent.”
Even worse for Florida is the fact that Gulf Coast refineries, which provide virtually all of the Sunshine State’s gasoline, were operating at 96 percent capacity in December and are down to 81 percent, Laskoski said.
“That really illustrates what is going on. The supply of gasoline always tightens at this time of year,” he said.
Hedge funds and other large speculators in the oil futures market have also caused some of the run-up.
“There has been an exorbitant amount of speculation in crude oil,” Laskoski said. “Between December and today, $20 billion has been put into crude oil futures.”
And the weak U.S. dollar, which is at a 15-year low, according the International Monetary Fund, plays a role.
“It takes more U.S. dollars to buy the crude oil and refine it and for consumers to pay for it as a finished product at the pump,” Laskoski said. “Consumers are just getting clobbered, especially with the additional payroll tax. Their take-home pay is less, and the take-home dollars are worthless.”
Thursday, another positive sign was a decrease in wholesale gasoline prices, which could mean that increases at the pump will stall for a few days or a week, Laskoski said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.