Gas prices start spring climb early

By Beth Brown
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Gas prices usually climb as winter winds down, but this season’s upswing is starting unusually early — and may end up matching the peak spring prices of the past two years.

Spending at the pump has skyrocketed of late, with prices in Houston rising 14 cents in the past week to hit an average $3.39 for a gallon of unleaded gas Thursday, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. A month ago, Houston drivers were paying an average of $3.19 per gallon.

San Antonio’s average gas price has risen 15 cents to $3.34 per gallon. A month ago, drivers there were paying $3.12.

“We’ve seen this movie before, but it generally occurs in March and April,” said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service.

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Drivers woke up last Friday to find prices had jumped as much as 4 cents overnight. But the pace slowed this week, climbing another cent overnight Tuesday.

However, gas price increases are expected to continue. Kloza predicts prices will trend higher through February and March, closing in on the $3.75 to $4 a gallon averages that represented the season’s peaks in 2011 and 2012.

Prices tend to rise in late winter due to temporary refinery shutdowns for maintenance and refiners’ preparations to switch to summer blends of gasoline, which will happen in March.

“(Refineries shut down for maintenance) at this time of year because the weather is nice and it’s before hurricane season,” said Doug Shupe, spokesman for AAA. “They’ve gone offline, and whenever you see that prices tend to go up.”

And improving economic fortunes in the U.S. and overseas have pushed up demand and fuel prices.

Still, less expensive U.S. shale oil and more efficient refining technologies ultimately should keep this year’s prices lower than those of 2012, according to Kloza.

Unleaded is currently cheaper than it was a year ago — but not by much. A gallon in Houston was $3.396 one year ago, just slightly lower than its $3.393 price now. Unleaded gasoline in San Antonio was about $3.36 one year ago, three cents lower than Thursday’s average.

Andy Lipow, president of Houston-based Lipow Oil Associates LLC, predicted prices might reach $3.70 during the summer, but this year’s early price spike might signify that drivers will be paying that much before summer hits.

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San Antonio drivers have seen fuel costs fluctuate almost 40 cents in two months. Though he’s glad air quality standards are tighter, San Antonio driver Chris Siens believes such a price jump in pricing is wrong.

“There’s no reason for a 30 cent sway in prices overnight,” Siens said while filling up his full-size pickup at the Shell gas station on Cevallos Street and Interstate 35.

The recent upswing comes on the heels of a Feb. 4 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that showed fuel costs guzzled about 4 percent of an average household’s pretax income in 2012, the highest rate in 30 years — excluding 2008, when spending on gas likewise reached 4 percent.

Siens’ truck has to be filled twice a week, with each trip to the gas station costing at least $100. Another San Antonio driver, Mark Salazar, fills up twice a week as well, but his work vehicle takes V-Power fuel, which cost $3.65 a gallon at the Cevallos Shell on Wednesday morning.

“It’s really just supply and demand,” Salazar said while filling up his car. “(Gas prices) go up. The cost of living goes up. That’s what happens.”