The national average rose about half a cent to $3.93 per gallon on Friday, only about a nickel less than last year's high of $3.98 a gallon, reached in May. Analysts think pump prices will top $4 a gallon nationally within the next couple of weeks, perhaps sooner. Then they could start to fall.
Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service has said the average pump price could climb as high as $4.25 per gallon next month, which would top the all-time record of $4.11 per gallon set in 2008. He expects the national average to hit about $4.05 per gallon by mid-April. Whether it goes any higher, or retreats, after that is unclear, he said.
Several factors have been affecting the price drivers pay to fill their tanks. Gasoline prices typically climb in the spring as refineries switch to costlier summer blends that have additives to curb pollution. This year pump prices also have been pushed higher by rising crude oil prices, which refineries buy to make gasoline. The average price of gas is up 15 percent since Jan. 1.
Oil has jumped because of concerns that global supplies could become tighter due to tensions over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and other countries are concerned that Iran, the world's third-largest oil exporter, is building a nuclear weapon. Iran has denied it, but won't let international inspectors take a closer look at its nuclear facilities.
The Associated Press reported Friday that President Barack Obama is moving ahead with tough sanctions aimed at squeezing Iran's oil exports, after he determined that there is enough crude on world markets to take that step without harming U.S. allies.
U.S. sanctions on foreign banks that continue to purchase oil from Iran take effect in June. The aim is to cut off Iran's central bank, which processes almost all of the country's oil business. Other countries are attempting to cut off Iran's oil revenue through a variety of sanctions and an embargo.
The U.S., France and other nations are also considering a release of some emergency oil supplies to cool rising oil prices. Most analysts agree that releasing oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be at best a temporary cap on oil prices.
On Friday benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rose 22 cents to $103 per barrel in New York. That's about 4 percent lower than the beginning of this month, when it was close to $109 a barrel.
The U.S. benchmark has risen about 38 percent from about $75 per barrel in October and is up 4 percent since the start of the year.
In other energy trading, heating oil was unchanged at $3.17 per gallon, gasoline futures fell 3 cents to $3.31 per gallon and natural gas fell 2 cents to $2.13 per 1,000 cubic feet, as it lingered at a 10-year low.
Brent crude rose 61 cents to $123 per barrel in London.
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