The cost of filling up the family car jumped to a record high Tuesday, adding to the challenges consumers already face with falling home values and rising food prices.
Gas prices at the pump rose overnight to a record national average of $3.2272 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. That's a tad higher than the previous record of $3.2265, set last May.
A year ago, rising demand and a string of refinery outages had raised concerns about supplies. Now, the soaring price of crude oil is the culprit, propelling gas higher even though supplies are at 15-year highs.
On Tuesday, light sweet crude for April delivery surged to a new record of $109.72on the New York Mercantile Exchange before falling after the International Energy Agency cut its forecasts for crude consumption this year.
Where oil goes from here is anybody's guess. Many analysts expect prices to moderate, while others predict oil could keep rising to $120 a barrel, or higher. And with demand for gas expected to rise as warm weather arrives, analysts say prices will likely spike as high as $3.50 to $3.75 a gallon, regardless of what happens with oil prices.
That doesn't sit well with some consumers.
"I've got to say, if they ever go up to $3.50, that would be the point where I'd feel angry," said Alex Magby, a Morrisville, Pa., resident who was gassing up near his New Jersey restaurant job one recent afternoon. "I'd feel cheated at that point."
Still, because gas is so expensive, analysts expect demand for fuel will rise more slowly this spring and summer than in previous years. Nationwide demand for gasoline is off by about 1 percent over the last 6 weeks, a trend analysts expect to accelerate if prices keep rising.
Consumers Driving Less
"It evokes a real reaction in demand destruction above $3.25 a gallon," Kloza said.
The effect can be seen in states such as California, where prices are consistently 30 cents higher than the national average. Last November, the latest month for which data is available, demand for gasoline fell by 3.7 percent from the previous year in California as prices soared past $3.40 a gallon.
On Tuesday, the average price of a gallon of gas in California stood at $3.581 a gallon. Prices have already passed the $4 mark at many stations nationwide. But Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J., thinks slower demand growth will prevent the national average from rising that high.
High gas prices may actually help some companies that rely on tourism. Carl Wilgus, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, said the number of skiers visiting the Pennsylvania ski region this winter was up, despite gas prices holding steady above $3 for most of that time. In part, that's because many people plan vacations closer to home when fuel is so expensive, he said, giving up a trip to Florida in favor of a ski vacation an hour away, he said.
"We'll definitely lose some visitation, but hopefully we'll gain some from the folks who hope to stay closer to home," Wilgus said.
The sheer price of gassing a recreational vehicle may induce some to look for campgrounds closer to home this summer. At $3.50 a gallon, a 100-gallon Winnebago Destination RV will cost $350 to fill, $27 more than right now, and $96 more than a year ago.