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Prices at the pump this Memorial Day weekend are among the cheapest in years, thanks to low oil prices and near-record-high refining volumes.
The national average for unleaded regular gasoline Friday was $2.37 per gallon, 6 cents higher than last year, according to AAA. However, prices are well below the five preceding years, when prices averaged above $3 per gallon on Memorial Day weekend. Part of this year's rise includes several cents per gallon from increased state gasoline taxes.
"I think there will be a lot of price points at various places in the country below $2. We're always going to be making more gasoline than we need. It's only when we get disruptions that you get issues," said Tom Kloza, head of global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service.
The perfect storm for cheaper gasoline prices, however, has been due in part to record runs at U.S. refineries. U.S. refiners processed 17.3 million barrels of crude last week, the second highest ever after a slightly elevated run in April. According to government data going back to 1982, the first time more than 17 million barrels a day was processed by the industry was in January.
"The consumer is reaping the benefit. I think the national average [for gasoline] will still range between $2.40 and $2.50 a gallon, and any price increase is going to be tempered by rising U.S. crude oil production, which is set to hit an all-time record in 2018. The record being just shy of 10 million barrels a day," said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.
Kloza, who had initially forecast a much higher gasoline price for this summer, said his outlook was proven wrong because oil did not rise above $55 as he expected. Even after OPEC reached an agreement to extend production cuts Thursday, crude prices fell and West Texas Intermediate futures were just below $50 per barrel in Friday trading.
"It's thanks to shale. There's no question about it," said Kloza. U.S. shale drillers have been ramping up production as OPEC and other major producers cut back. Those output cuts helped stabilize oil above $50 per barrel temporarily. Crude fell off again into the $40s as supplies stayed high, in part due to U.S. drillers increasing output.
"I was wrong. I thought [gasoline] would be about 50 cents higher than last year. Now I think we'll be about 10 to 20 cents higher, but then hurricanes are a caveat to all of that," Kloza said.
There are some places in the country with gasoline is still above $3, like California where the average unleaded price was $3.09 per gallon. "It's only a couple cents higher nationwide than last year and really the people who are seeing the biggest increase happen to be in California, where a power outage resulted in some refinery problems," said Lipow.
Even as the U.S. refines more oil, the demand for gasoline is lower than it was at this time last year. In the first part of the year, demand was several percent lower. In the latest weekly government data, gasoline demand was 9.7 million barrels a day, but the four-week average was 9.4 million, compared with 9.6 million in the same period last year.
"Gasoline demand is slightly lower than this time last year. The demand for 2017 has been a little bit slower than for 2016 but supplies are more than adequate to meet the summer's driving demand," said Lipow.
*price per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline
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