Steffy: Are record gasoline prices a glimpse of the future?

Gasoline prices soared to a record in September, the fifth recording-breaking month in a year that’s on track to be the most expensive ever for motorists. This wasn’t supposed to happen. By September, pump prices were supposed to begin their typical decline as the summer driving season ends. This year has been anything but typical, although it may be the new normal.

Crude prices have been high for much of the year despite a dawdling economic recovery in the U.S. and Europe. Political unrest in the Middle East has continued to agitate oil markets. Crude prices, though, are only part of the story. There’s been a rash of refinery outages from storms in the Gulf of Mexico and accidents from Venezuela to Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, many U.S. refineries are paying higher world prices for crude because of a lack of pipeline capacity from the midwestern United States. Yet in the forests of East Texas, people are taking to the trees to prevent new pipelines from being built. U.S. domestic oil production continues to rise — it hit its highest in 15 years last month – it isn’t enough to have a noticeable impact on the global price of crude.

Worldwide production has remained relatively constant in recent years, and with global demand expected to surge, crude prices are going to keep rising over time. In the shorter term, higher prices will be spurred by economic recovery, as we saw this week. U.S. manufacturing beat most economists’ forecasts this week,┬áprompting concern of shrinking fuel supplies as factories ramp up their output and pushing crude prices near a one-week high.

The big question is how much of this year’s price hike at the pump is the result of refining disruptions and other short-term factors, and how much is a reflection of broader economic trends? The prices we’re seeing this year may seem high now, but in a few years, they might look cheap.