Gasoline prices rising at rapid clip

WTI below $50; Brent below $60
WTI below $50, Brent below $60   

Gasoline prices have risen 20 percent in just a month and could see another sharp jump before returning to much cheaper prices during the summer driving season.

According to AAA, the 39-cent per-gallon gain in a 35-day period is the longest streak of rising gasoline prices since 2013. The national average price of gasoline Monday was $2.42 per gallon of unleaded gasoline, up from $2.05 just a month ago. February gasoline averaged $2.23 per gallon, well below $3.34 per gallon last year and the cheapest February since 2009.

Gasoline prices have shot up recently with the gains in crude oil, but they have been disproportionately boosted by a sharp jump in California gasoline prices. Since a fire at ExxonMobil's Torrance refinery last month, the price of California gasoline has zipped higher, reaching an average price of $3.38 per gallon Monday.

"I think we're in the sixth to seventh inning, probably more than that in California. I think we'll remain about $1 below last year for most of the country. California is separate. They lost a refinery for the driving season," said Tom Kloza, founder of Oil Price Information Service. "It's always a little finicky, but I think we'll see a return of some of those really cheap prices after we get a spring peak. I think the spring peak comes between now and April Fools' Day. I think it's about $2.70."

Kloza said he then expects prices to begin to decline as the summer driving season approaches. "I think we'll have an episode (of $2 gasoline). But my hunch is that's not going to be the norm," he said. Gasoline retail prices bottomed at $2.03 per gallon on Jan. 26, according to AAA.

"I think those those numbers of $2 and less return to two-thirds of the country for at least a portion of 2015 ... maybe before the summer and after Labor Day," Kloza said.

Another factor sending gasoline prices higher has been the reduced capacity at refiners as they go through maintenance, ahead of the shift in production to summer gasoline formulas.

Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, sees gas rising to $2.50 per gallon very quickly but then stabilizing. "I think gasoline prices will come under pressures as refineries return from maintenance," he said.

But as for California, it could continue to see higher prices while the Exxon refinery is offline. That refinery produces 11 percent of the gasoline made in California, he said.

Kloza said the glut in crude oil should translate into a glut in refined product, and that will drive down gas prices. He and other experts see another leg down for crude and the possibility that it will hit a new low in the spring.

"I think crude oil prices are going to come under pressure," said Lipow. "I think we're going to see the low $40s as inventories continue to swell in the U.S."