American drivers are facing the highest gasoline costs in about four years heading into the Memorial Day weekend, but many analysts think the price at the pump will soon peak.
The national average for regular gasoline has reached $2.969 a gallon, about 60 cents higher than a year ago, according to AAA. Prices are still well below those seen in 2014 — the year the oil market crashed — but that’s likely cold comfort to drivers watching the figures on gas station signs tick higher day after day.
Still, there is reason to believe the worst is almost over. All else being equal, gasoline prices tend to peak ahead of driving season, which unofficially kicks off with the Memorial Day holiday, said Matt Smith director of commodity research at ClipperData.
“What you see is refinery maintenance in the spring, and then as we come out of that, we see prices peak as those refiners then produce more product which then gets consumed as demand peaks in the summertime,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Friday.
Stockpiles of gasoline are also sitting at relatively healthy levels. The nation currently has nearly 234 million barrels of gasoline in storage. For inventory levels to push up prices, the U.S. probably would have to enter Memorial Day with fewer than 220 million barrels tucked away, said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.
“We certainly have enough supply to make it through the summer driving season,” he said. “The issue has been that crude oil prices have risen about $10 a barrel over the last several months, which added 25 cents to the cost [of gasoline].”
To be sure, oil prices have been trending higher for the last year as demand for fuel grows and as OPEC, Russia and other major producers limit their output to drain a global glut of crude. But the rally accelerated as President Donald Trump restored punishing sanctions on Iran, OPEC’s third-biggest producer, and as output continues to decline in Venezuela amid a grueling economic crisis.
On Friday, oil prices fell sharply after Russian and Saudi oil ministers said producers may start pumping more to keep the market from overheating. That’s good news to drivers, since crude oil accounts for about 50 percent to 60 percent of the price of gasoline.
The summer range should settle in the $2.90-$3.10 per gallon, according to Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service. Still, consumers remain concerned that gasoline prices could spike to $4 a gallon, he added.
“The worry quotient increases every day between now and early July, and then it’s about the weather in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “If there’s no tropical disturbance in July and August, we tend to see flat prices or lower prices.”
The Gulf of Mexico is a major transport hub for fuel, and its shores are home to the nation’s biggest concentration of refineries. A devastating hurricane season knocked out about a quarter of U.S. refining capacity along the Gulf Coast last year, causing gas prices to spike.
On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 2018 would see a near- or above-normal hurricane season. NOAA said there’s a 70 percent chance of 10 to 16 named storms developing, with five to nine potentially becoming hurricanes.
Lipow said Americans might not be quick to change their vacation plans even if gasoline prices are relatively high. That’s because airline fares are expected to start rising due to fuel prices, a major cost for carriers.
Still, nearly a quarter of respondents to a recent Gasbuddy.com survey said gas prices are high enough to make them rethink taking a long vacation by car. The current cost at the pump could add several hundred dollars to a road trip budget, said Dan McTeague, senior petroleum analyst at Gasbuddy.com.
But McTeague, too, thinks a measure of relief could be in store for drivers.
“Importantly, over the next couple of days I think we’re going to see a correction,” he told CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange” on Friday. “Maybe not in time for this Memorial Day long weekend, but looking into next week, potentially prices easing off a little bit and not really resuming their track upward until the end of June.”