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Expert expects gas prices in Chicago to hit $4.60 by May

Updated: March 8, 2012 8:14AM



Get ready for another round of pain at the pump: gas at $4 (or higher) a gallon. After rising 19 cents a gallon in the past four weeks, regular unleaded gasoline now averages $3.48 a gallon, vs. $3.12 a year ago and $2.67 in February 2010. And prices could spike another 60 cents or more by May.

“I think it’s going to be a chaotic spring, with huge price increases in some places,” says Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service, who expects average prices to peak at $4.05 nationally, although he and other industry trackers say prices could be sharply higher in some places, such as Chicago.

“You could see prices in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and other major metropolitan areas at $4.60 or higher,” agrees energy analyst Patrick DeHaan of price tracker Gasbuddy.com.

Rising prices are an annual spring ritual, due largely to seasonal demand. Refiners also switch from winter formulations to more expensive seasonal formulations to meet stringent environmental standards, which can tack on 15 cents a gallon, says Brian Milne of energy tracker Televent DTN.

This year’s earlier-than-usual run-up is more about anticipation than current supply and demand. Last week, the Energy Department reported anemic U.S. consumption -- the lowest levels since September 2001. Domestic crude oil prices, now about $98 a barrel, are near six-week lows.

Renewed tensions in the Middle East are bolstering crude prices, while speculators are boosting futures contracts, betting on global supply disruptions and tighter refining capacity. Kloza notes that several U.S. and overseas refiners have experienced temporary or permanent closures.

So far, $4 a gallon has proven to be the upper limit consumers will pay. Last April, national prices peaked at about $3.98 a gallon. In 2008, a sharp run-up ended when prices hit an all-time average of $4.11 a gallon that summer.

“Higher demand, Iran, lost refining capacity are all potential problems,” Milne says. “We’ll get over $4 a gallon, but it’s going to be tough to sustain that level. People will drive less.”

Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank, says consumers will be vulnerable to rising prices until the U.S. develops alternative fuels such as natural gas.

“The increase in gas prices last year sucked $100 billion out of the economy,” she says. “We aren’t going to get a break because there is no long-term grand strategy to keep prices down.”



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