NEW YORK — Gasoline prices have never been higher this time of the year in the U.S.
At $3.53 a gallon, prices are already up 25 cents since Jan. 1. And experts say they could reach a record $4.25 a gallon by late April.
“You’re going to see a lot more staycations this year,” says Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research, referring to people staying at home on their vacations. “When the price gets anywhere near $4, you really see people react.”
Already, W. Howard Coudle, a retired machinist from Crestwood, Missouri, has seen his monthly gasoline bill rise to $80 from about $60 in December. The closest service station is selling regular for $3.39 per gallon, the highest he’s ever seen.
“I guess we’re going to have to drive less, consolidate all our errands into one trip,” Coudle says. “It’s just oppressive.”
The surge in gas prices follows an increase in the price of oil.
Oil around the world is priced differently. Brent crude from the North Sea is a proxy for the foreign oil that’s imported by U.S. refineries and turned into gasoline and other fuels. Its price has risen 11 percent so far this year, to around $119 a barrel, because of tensions with Iran, a cold snap in Europe and rising demand from developing nations. West Texas Intermediate, used to price oil produced in the U.S., is up 4 percent to around $103 a barrel. That’s 19 percent higher than a year earlier.
Higher gas prices could hurt consumer spending and curtail the recent improvement in the U.S. economy.
A 25-cent jump in gasoline prices, if sustained over a year, would cost the economy about $35 billion. That’s only 0.2 percent of the total U.S. economy, but economists say it’s a meaningful amount, especially at a time when growth is only so-so. The economy grew 2.8 percent in the fourth quarter, a rate considered modest following a recession.
High oil and gas prices now set the stage for even sharper increases at the pump because gas typically rises in March and April.
Every spring, refiners suspend operations to switch the type of gasoline they make. Supplies of wintertime gas are sold off before March, when refineries need to start making a new formula of gasoline that’s required in the summer.