NEW YORK - Gasoline prices hit records at the pump yesterday for the fourth straight day, while prices on the futures market for gas and oil surged because of concerns that refiners aren't making enough gasoline to meet demand for peak summer driving.
With the summer driving season set to begin in a week with the Memorial Day weekend, the 1.7-million-barrel increase in gasoline inventories reported by the government Wednesday simply was not enough to convince energy traders that supplies are catching up to demand.
"We might have to wait" until after the Fourth of July to see a significant decline in gasoline prices, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates, a Galena, Ill., oil-trading advisory firm.
The average national price for regular gasoline rose to an all-time high of $3.11 a gallon yesterday, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. That was up 1.1 cents from Wednesday and nearly 25 cents in a month. Prices in some parts of the country, including California, already have passed $4.
Gasoline futures for June delivery jumped 9.96 cents to settle at $2.4366 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Light, sweet crude for June delivery climbed $2.31 to settle at $64.86 a barrel on the Nymex.
Another factor boosting oil prices was a comment by a top leader of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that the oil cartel would not pump more crude to meet an expected surge in summer demand.
But analysts said traders were more focused on the tight gasoline market Ritterbusch, the trading adviser, said: "It's still 99 percent gasoline-led. We're still not building gasoline supplies enough."
The Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday that gasoline stocks, while increasing to 195.2 million barrels, remained well below the average for this time of year.
"Those were insignificant figures," wrote Cameron Hanover analyst Peter Beutel in a research note.
The gasoline shortage is due to a number of unexpected refinery outages this spring and continued strong consumer demand - despite rising prices.
"Gasoline demand remains quite strong," said Antoine Halff, an analyst at Fimat USA L.L.C.
Every day's news seems to bring a new list of refinery problems, and yesterday was no exception. BP P.L.C., ConocoPhillips and Valero Energy Corp. reported planned or unexpected shutdowns at a number of U.S. refineries, Barclays Capital analysts said in a research note.
Not helping matters were comments by OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem el-Badri yesterday in Bali, Indonesia, that the 12-member oil cartel would stand firm on its view that global oil markets are amply supplied and do not need an increase before the summer.
El-Badri said U.S. gasoline stock levels are "acceptable" despite the industry's concern that inventories have fallen too low to meet the usual surge in summer demand.
Average price per gallon for unleaded regular.
One week ago: $3.04.
One month ago: $2.87.
One year ago: $2.93.
One week ago: $3.00.
One month ago: $2.84.
One year ago: $3.08.
One week ago: $2.82.
One month ago: $2.64.
One year ago: $2.94.
*The city and four suburban counties in Pennsylvania.
**Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties.
SOURCE: AAA Mid-Atlantic.