Pump prices could rise on Syria fears

By Collin Eaton

Drivers typically get a break on gasoline after the summer vacation season ends, but the escalating conflict in Syria has spurred a spike in oil prices that could inflate the price at the pump as soon as next week.

U.S. benchmark crude rose $3.09 to $109.01 a barrel Tuesday, its highest price in 18 months, after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. is ready to take action if President Barack Obama orders a military response to the Syrian regime’s reported use of chemical weapons against its population.

A gallon of regular has averaged about $3.55 nationwide for the last two weeks, and the price often drops after the Labor Day weekend that marks the unofficial end of summer travel.

The turmoil in the Middle East could produce a different price picture.

“Given that oil rallied $3 today, I expect that gas prices over the next week will begin rising, probably 5 to 10 cents a gallon, to reflect the anxiety in the oil market,” said Andy Lipow, president of Houston-based Lipow Associates LLC.

Fears of an escalating conflict in the Middle East — one that could expand beyond Syrian borders to Iran, a much bigger oil player — already have pushed crude prices up, but so far without much effect on prices at the pump.

Regular averaged $3.54 in the U.S. on Tuesday, down from $3.63 a month ago, according to AAA.

In Houston, regular averaged $3.40, down 13 cents from July 27.

Michael Green, a spokesman for AAA, said U.S. gasoline supply is 8 percent higher than a year ago while demand is up only 1 percent.

And daily demand is projected to drop by 300,000 barrels after Labor Day, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for GasBuddy, a consumer-oriented fuel price information service.

He noted, however, that violence in the Middle East has struck U.S. pump prices before — for example, when the uprisings known as the Arab Spring began almost three years ago. But domestic oil production has climbed since then, which could blunt the effect of Syrian conflict on gasoline prices even if crude futures rise.

Still, Labor Day weekend is expected to draw out travelers by the millions: About 29.2 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more on the road this weekend, up 4.3 percent from a year ago, according to AAA.

“An increase in futures prices doesn’t always translate into higher prices at the pump, but it’s something consumers should be concerned about as Labor Day approaches,” said Green of AAA.

It’s true — drivers still have to worry about pricey gasoline on a daily basis, said Megan Sakkal, who was filling up her H3 Hummer at a Shell station near downtown Tuesday afternoon on the way to pick up her daughter.

For her, that means combining trips when possible — maybe a stop at the grocery story on the way home instead of a separate trip later.

“For the day-to-day running around, picking up kids, it’s something you try to make as efficient as possible,” Sakkal said.