Well, we had a nice run. After 123 straight days of falling gasoline prices, sending it below $2 a gallon in many states, we've come back to reality a little bit. In fact, gas prices have now risen each and every day for about a month. Unfortunately, gas prices could go a lot higher because of three storm clouds that appear to be on the horizon, which could combine to send gas prices rocketing higher.
Storm cloud No. 1: Rising oil prices
The dramatic drop in the price of oil in late 2014 caused gas prices to come down as well. We see this correlation in the following chart:
As we see there, the price of oil is down 45% over the past year, while the price of gasoline is down 32%. However, we can also see that both have bounced off of their bottoms from earlier this year. That's because the price of oil has stabilized and is now starting to head higher as the oil market starts to see signs that it is working out some of its supply/demand imbalance issues.
Because those issues are being addressed, the oil market is now starting to point to a higher oil price later this year. That's a recipe for higher gas prices, which is just what the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting, as we can see on the chart below.
Storm cloud No. 2: The big switch
One other thing you might have noticed from that above chart is that the price of gasoline is notably more lumpy than the price of oil. It's something most of us notice at the pump each year as gas prices almost always rise in the spring. That's because summer driving season is upon us, which leads to more demand for gasoline.
However, what really drives the price of gas up isn't so much increased demand for gasoline in the summer, but the fact that oil refineries need to shift gears in the spring to focus on refining summer-blend fuels as opposed to winter-blend gasoline and home heating oil. Along with this switch, refiners also tend to undergo routine maintenance in the spring, which reduces their refining capacity. This adds up, and over the past few years on average, this has added $0.54 per gallon to the cost of gasoline each spring.
Storm cloud No.3: The picket line
This year, there's a new wrinkle that could throw a wrench in the spring refinery maintenance season. The refining industry is currently at odds with the United Steelworkers union as the two have failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. As the dispute grows, workers at a dozen U.S. refineries have walked off the job, putting 19% of U.S. refining capacity at risk. The strike could continue to expand, as neither party is giving much ground on the disputed issues. This could lead to up to 63 refineries, which represent two-thirds of refining capacity, being affected by the strike.
So far, the strike has only resulted in one refinery in California being shut down, and that's just because it was already undergoing maintenance, and its owner decided not to run the plant. However, shortly thereafter, an explosion at another California refinery took that facility offline, too, and cut the state's refining capacity by 25%. This resulted in gas prices spiking in Los Angeles by $0.50 per gallon. This suggests that should the growing labor dispute lead to refineries across the nation shutting down, it could cause a big spike in what we pay at the pump.
Unfortunately, the days of $2 gas appear to be in the rearview mirror. Even without the rally in the oil price over the past few weeks, gas prices would have headed higher because of the normal spring switchover at refineries. However, this year, the price of gas could be under even more pressure to rise because of the possibility of a continued increase in the price of oil, and the possibility that the refinery strike causes a big portion of refining capacity to be taken offline.
I know that's not the greatest of news, but if gas prices do spike, at least you'll know why. And it's a good reminder that instead of complaining about gas prices, an investment in the oil industry could offset some of the extra costs we'll be paying at the pump and take away a bit of the sting of spiking prices.