Break over – California gas prices soar

by Mark Glover, Sacramento Bee

The break motorists received at California gas pumps over the recent holidays is over.

After a December and early January of declines and generally stable at-the-pump costs, the price of gasoline in the Sacramento area spiked 21 cents over the past week to an average of $3.74 a gallon, the national gas price tracker said Monday.

That’s on top of a 6-cent rise the previous week among the 720 area stations surveyed by GasBuddy.

The current Sacramento-area price is 6.2 cents per gallon higher than it was a year ago and 26.8 cents higher than last month.

Nationally, GasBuddy said, the average price of gas increased 14.4 cents per gallon over the past week to $3.48 ‘ up 21.1 cents from last month and 4.4 cents higher than a year ago.

Analysts blamed a stew of factors ‘ an improving economy setting off speculators, surging crude oil prices, and refineries doing maintenance to gear up for the upcoming production of spring/summer-blend gas.

"Unfortunately for angry motorists, there doesn’t seem to be much relief in sight, at least for the time being, as retail prices continue to climb in virtually all areas of the country," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.

Analysts noted that speculation in gas and oil markets tends to surge on good economic news, and last week’s strong showing in stock markets helped propel crude oil prices upward.

They closed out last week near $98 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Crude cooled down a bit Monday, closing at $96.17 a barrel amid reported progress in U.S.-Iran nuclear talks and a swell of speculators taking some profits.

DeHaan said California refineries usually switch to more expensive spring and summer gas in March. Any down time they experience making that conversion tends to drive pump prices higher.

"Sacramento probably is not quite going to see four bucks (a gallon) this month, but that is a possibility if there’s a more serious refinery issue," DeHaan said.

On Monday afternoon, AAA said the average price of regular unleaded gasoline throughout California was $3.91 a gallon, up more than 30 cents from last month. AAA showed $3.76 a gallon in the Sacramento area.

Also on Monday, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report saying that most Americans are likely to spend almost as much on gasoline over the life of their vehicle as the original cost of the vehicle.