The national average price for regular gasoline continued to advance, rising 7 cents to $2.31 per gallon, according to the May 20 issue of “This Week in Petroleum,” published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Although the price was the highest since November 3, 2008, it remained $1.48 below the average of a year ago, according to the weekly report. Prices increased in all regions of the country, with the price on the East Coast climbing 8 cents to $2.30 per gallon. The smallest increase took place in the Midwest, where the price rose 4 cents to $2.30 per gallon. At $2.21 per gallon, the average price on the Gulf Coast remained the lowest in the Nation despite an increase of 8 cents. In the Rocky Mountains, the price rose 6 cents to $2.24 per gallon. The price increase on the West Coast was the largest among the regions, climbing 9 cents to $2.46 per gallon. In California, the average jumped a dime to $2.52 per gallon.
The national average price of diesel fuel rose for the second week in a row, gaining a cent and a half to reach $2.23 per gallon, $2.27 below last year, the EIA noted. Prices in all regions of the country increased. On the East Coast, the price rose two cents to $2.28 per gallon. The lowest regional price occurred in the Midwest, increasing over a cent to $2.17 per gallon. The average price for the Gulf Coast rose a penny to $2.21 per gallon. The increase in the Rocky Mountains was the smallest of any region, creeping up less than half a cent to $2.27 per gallon. The West Coast price moved up slightly more than a penny to $2.34 per gallon, while the price in California rose to $2.35 per gallon.
The weekly report included an assessment of the summer driving season, and projected what price trends would be. Here is an excerpt:
May is a time of transition for U.S. fuel markets, as gasoline suppliers prepare for summer driving. This year, May has already brought back the traditional—but lapsed—spring transition in which the average price of regular gasoline in the United States rises above the price of diesel fuel.
On May 11, the U.S. average retail price for regular gasoline reached $2.24 per gallon, surpassing the average diesel fuel price of $2.22. The crossing of the price paths for gasoline and diesel was once a regular rite of spring: gasoline prices rising for the high-demand summer driving season; distillate fuel prices, including diesel and heating oil, falling from their highs in the cold of winter. This pattern had begun to break down in 2005, when diesel prices exceeded gasoline prices nearly the entire year (with the exception of a few weeks surrounding Hurricane Katrina). In 2006, gasoline and diesel prices remained essentially at parity for most of April through July, after which diesel commanded a notable premium. In 2007, the pattern returned, with gasoline rising strongly above diesel from late April to late July. Last year, diesel climbed to much higher levels than gasoline, despite gasoline breaking $4 per gallon. May 11 of this year marks the first time since July 23, 2007 that regular gasoline has cost more at the pump, on average, than diesel fuel.
Over the past few years, strong growth in distillate demand globally broke the traditional pattern of diesel and gasoline prices. Distillate demand growth over the last 5 years was boosted by two factors. A strong world economy put more upward pressure on distillate demand than on gasoline, and Europe’s policy-driven shift away from gasoline to distillate fuel in its light duty vehicles increased demand for diesel while reducing gasoline.
Shorter-term factors also affect the price relationship between gasoline and diesel. As the economy weakened, the current economic slowdown affected distillates more than gasoline, because distillate demand is largely made up of diesel fuel for trucks, trains, and ships to move goods and materials, while gasoline demand is used mainly in light duty personal cars and trucks. In fact, U.S. distillate demand fell by 6.1 percent in 2008, while gasoline dropped by 3.5 percent.
Diesel and gasoline prices have been converging throughout the first part of 2009. At the end of December 2008, gasoline prices bottomed at $1.61, the lowest price in nearly 5 years. By the first week in May, they had risen 47 cents to $2.08 per gallon. Crude oil prices explain some of this increase: between the end of 2008 and the first week in May, crude oil prices rose about $16 per barrel, or 38 cents per gallon. Since wholesale gasoline prices were near or even below the price of some crude oils at the end of 2008, gasoline prices were expected to increase more than crude oil prices.
More recently, gasoline price increases have been driven by the more traditional spring transition leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the peak summer driving season. The average U.S. price for regular gasoline rose another 23 cents over the past two weeks, reaching $2.31 per gallon on May 18. Crude oil prices have contributed in some measure to this increase as well: from May 1 through May 15, crude prices increased $7 per barrel, or 18 cents per gallon. Although crude oil prices are likely to remain a major influence over gasoline prices this summer, the seasonal increase in gasoline demand during the peak driving season, on top of potential underlying demand recovery, appears to be influencing the price at the pump. At the same time, strong supply availability from refiners now running at low utilizations in both Europe and the U.S. is likely to moderate gasoline price increases this summer. In any case, both gasoline and diesel fuel prices will likely stay well below their summer 2008 levels, making this year’s spring transition less dramatic than the last.