Just in time for Presidents Day — $4-a-gallon gasoline.
That’s what energy analysts were predicting for the long holiday weekend as the average price in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area reached $3.996 a gallon Friday. That’s up nearly 2 cents from Thursday and an increase of 15.9 cents a gallon since last week, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.
Fuel prices have been rising quickly in recent weeks in part because of higher oil prices and a shutdown of some California refineries for maintenance.
Analysts said prices this high so early in the year could mean more pain at the pump in coming months as demand increases during the vacation driving season and stations switch over to more expensive summer blends to meet pollution-fighting regulations.
“The earlier you see $4 out there, the more risk there is of $5-a-gallon gasoline,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com. “It’s not a question of whether some California service stations will reach $5. It’s a question of how many will reach it.”
Average prices already top $4 a gallon in some parts of California, including the Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Lompoc region ($4.031 a gallon); in the San Luis Obispo, Atascadero and Paso Robles region ($4.030 a gallon); and in San Francisco ($4.006 a gallon).
Other areas of Southern California are on the brink of $4 as well. In San Diego, the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded fuel was $3.992, up 16.2 cents since last week, according to the AAA report. Gasoline in Orange County has risen 16.2 cents a gallon in the last week to an average of $3.989.
Some Californians are gearing up to change their driving habits. Huntington Beach computer consultant Kirk J. Nason already owns a Toyota Prius and is planning to purchase a Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid.
“I’ll give the Prius to my wife,” Nason said. “Because my commute is less than 40 miles, I’ll be able to drive the Volt without burning any gas. Prices were around $3.79 here last week, and today they are $3.99 a gallon.”
California’s average stands at $3.956 a gallon, which is also a record for Feb. 17, breaking the old mark set last year by a whopping 45.3 cents a gallon.
Meanwhile, oil continued its ascent Friday, up 93 cents to its highest close of the year at $103.24 a barrel. Oil prices have risen 4.5% so far this year.
Another factor driving gasoline prices higher: U.S. refineries continue to set new records for exports of refined fuels because they can make more money selling products like diesel overseas.
During the week of Feb. 10, refineries exported a record average of 3.1 million barrels of refined fuels a day. That’s up 42.6% compared with the same week in 2011 and up 80.6% since 2010.