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U.S., California fuel prices may reach record highs in 2012

November 7, 2011 | 10:01 am

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A combination of burgeoning global demand and rising U.S. exports will leave California and national gasoline and diesel prices at such a high level by the end of the year that they could rise to all-time record highs in 2012, analysts said Monday.

Americans are currently on pace to spend a record $489 billion on gasoline in 2011 because prices have remained at high levels all year. The only year that came close to the current situation was 2008, when U.S. motorists spent about $448 billion on gasoline. But even though oil and refined fuel prices climbed to record highs in 2008, they quickly fell afterward. That is not the case this year.

"We are at the highest fuel prices ever for this time of year, even though they have dropped a bit in recent weeks," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey, who made the $489-billion projection. "I think we will see prices in 2012 that will break the records set in 2008."

In the summer of 2008, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $4.114, according to the U.S. Energy Department. In California, a gallon of regular gasoline reached $4.588.

The current national average is $3.407 for a gallon of regular, down from $3.443 last week, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, which tracks closely with the Energy Department numbers. That shattered the old record for this week of the year: $3.013 a gallon, set in 2007.

In California, a gallon of regular gasoline is averaging $3.838, down slightly from $3.841 a week ago. Again, that is substantially higher than the old record for this week of the year of $3.231 a gallon set in 2007.

The primary reason for the stubbornly high prices is demand in Latin and South America, which is driving record U.S. exports of fuel to those parts of the world, particularly in the form of diesel. U.S. refiners are also making more diesel at the expense of gasoline production, Kloza said.

"Demand for gasoline is down in the U.S. by 4% compared to last year, but global demand has more than made up for that," Kloza said. "If you want to blame someone for the high prices, blame South America."

Another expert said that gasoline prices could be even worse than they are right now, given that world oil prices are again on the rise.

The European commodities trading benchmark, Brent North Sea crude, was up $2.14 during trading to $114.11 a barrel, its highest since Sept. 15. The U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate crude, was up 77 cents to $95.03 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

"The national average is just one penny away from being the lowest we've seen since the start of March, even as crude oil prices have risen," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com. "So it does remain surprising that average prices have moved very little."

ALSO:

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Fuel expense drives consumer price index

-- Ronald D. White

Chart: The AAA's rolling 12-month average for regular gasoline prices in the U.S. and California is well above 2010 levels. Prices may hit new highs in 2012, experts say. Credit: AAA Fuel Gauge Report

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