After falling for most of the summer, the average U.S. gasoline price rose nearly a nickel and California’s held steady, the Energy Department said Tuesday -- a course change that analysts blamed on extremely tight fuel supplies.
More bad news could be on the way during a time of year in which prices are usually on the decline, experts said. Fears of a squeeze in crude supplies lifted oil futures Tuesday to their highest close in a month, and analysts said energy costs could rise sharply if there were a major refinery problem in the U.S. or a hurricane strike in the Gulf of Mexico.
The price of a gallon of self-serve regular in California stayed at $2.791 over the last week, ending six straight weeks of declines, according to the Energy Department’s weekly survey of filling stations. That was still 21.9 cents below the year-earlier price.
A 13.3-cent surge in the Midwest sent the national average up 4.7 cents to $2.796 a gallon, leaving Californians in the rare position of paying less than motorists in other parts of the country. The prices represented averages as of Monday but were released a day late because of the Labor Day holiday.
“This has been a strange year,” said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey. “The higher prices for refined products makes sense because the refineries are stumbling again, but crude oil should not have rallied as much as it has.”
The Energy Department said Tuesday that the nation’s gasoline stocks were down to 192.6 million barrels, or about a 20-day supply.
“This is even fewer days than seen following the hurricanes in 2005,” the department said in its weekly report, later adding that “it has not been this low before” in the 16 1/2 years that the agency has tracked inventories.
Another problem was a heavy schedule for refinery maintenance that Kloza quipped could be viewed as “refinery siestas.”
But some experts said the spate of refinery shutdowns that helped exacerbate supply problems earlier this year should no longer be viewed as an anomaly.
“Unless we see a large amount of refinery construction, gasoline supplies may not be replenished to the same levels we have seen in the past,” said Bruce Bullock, executive director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.
There was no relief to be found in crude oil futures. They rose $1.04 to $75.08 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after the Colorado State University hurricane forecast team said Tuesday that “above-average hurricane activity” was expected. The team said three of the 10 named storms it predicted over the next three months would become major hurricanes.