Fuel prices skyrocketed to fresh records, the Energy Department said Tuesday, as high oil prices collided with the traditional Memorial Day weekend drive-fest.
The U.S. average price for self-serve regular gasoline hit $3.937 a gallon, up 14.6 cents from the week before, according to an Energy Department survey conducted Monday but released a day late because of the holiday. In California, a 14.7-cent increase pushed the average to $4.099 a gallon.
Diesel was even more expensive, leaping 29 cents to an average of $5.027 a gallon in California and 22.6 cents to $4.723 nationwide.
Freddie Chulo, a California trucker hauling a load of paint from Santa Ana to Yucaipa, said the first diesel price he saw Tuesday was $5.09 a gallon for credit card purchases.
"It's just insane. . . . The oil companies are sucking America dry," Chulo said.
Oil took a breather Tuesday, falling $3.34 to settle at $128.85 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Petroleum prices, which have more than doubled in the last year, were reacting to a weaker dollar and declining demand in the U.S., traders said.
Fuel prices have been so fundamentally at odds with normal seasonal patterns this year that analysts are divided about what may await motorists.
"Hurricane season is the number one thing on our radar now," said James DiGeorgia, editor of the Gold and Energy Advisor newsletter in Boca Raton, Fla. "It is bad now, but if we get a big hurricane or a series of big ones, you ain't seen nothing yet. It could spike to $5 a gallon."
But some experts suggested that the top of the roller coaster might have been reached.
"There's a chance the U.S. might approach these prices again at the height of the hurricane season, but I'm expecting the retail average to ease slightly in most states," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey. "There will be a bit of a pullback."
AAA's daily fuel-price survey, compiled using the Oil Price Information Service's analysis of prices at more than 100,000 locations, showed Tuesday that gasoline was averaging more than $4 a gallon in 11 states.
The Energy Department won't update its projections for gasoline and diesel prices for the third quarter until June 10, but this much is already clear: "Our forecast is going to be revised upward," economist Neil Gamson said.
The Energy Department had been projecting gasoline at $3.71 a gallon and diesel at $4.12 a gallon nationally in the third quarter.
High fuel prices have been particularly painful for independent truckers.
Chulo, whose three rigs make up the Huntington Beach-based Stars and Stripes Transportation Inc., said drivers must stand firm in demanding significant fuel surcharges in addition to their regular rates just to keep their wheels rolling.
Trucker Howard Salmon of Anderson, Calif., agreed.
"The gut reaction is 'Ouch, what are we going to do?' but you've got to price the jobs properly to compensate. If you don't, you're going to go out of business," said Salmon, who added that he had gotten very firm with potential employers.
"I tell them what I need to make, and if I don't get that, I'm not going."