Hit the road, Jack! California gas prices rise to $4 a gallon

Gas prices are rallying in America’s most populous state as motorists hit the road amid easing pandemic restrictions – with possible cost spillover effects for the rest of the country.

Californians are taking to the open road in much greater numbers, a sign that gasoline demand is on the rise a year after the pandemic paralyzed the economy [File: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg]

California gasoline prices rose to $4 a gallon for the first time in a year and a half as more motorists hit the road amid easing pandemic restrictions in the most-populous U.S. state.

The price in the most-expensive U.S. fuel market is up about 10 cents over the last month, according to AAA, amid a rally in crude oil and expanding fuel demand nationwide. Gasoline consumption across the country is on track for its third straight monthly increase, which would be the longest streak since last summer, Energy Information Administration figures showed.

Although California is alone among the 50 states in reaching the $4 mark, the rise may bode ill for the rest of the nation. Demand already is at the highest since pandemic lockdowns began kicking in early last year and as more cities and states relax virus restrictions, the economic activity that underpins energy demand is expected to blossom.

The price shock comes just 12 months after the worst oil rout in history sent the price of West Texas Intermediate crude, or WTI, into negative territory. The knock-on effect of the current rally may be surging fuel prices across the country.

“Remember last year at this time crude was at zero,” said Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the AAA auto club of Southern California. “Now we have WTI over $60, which is at a 2019 level.”

Gasoline futures climbed 2.4% to $2.0679 a gallon at 11:39 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange, pushing the year-to-date advance to 47%. The national retail average was at $2.89 on Wednesday, up 3 cents in the last month. GasBuddy analyst Patrick DeHaan said chances are high that the national average will reach $3 this summer.

The last time California gasoline reached these levels was November 2019, AAA data showed. The increase follows the introduction of more expensive summer-specification gasoline to the market, and even higher prices could be ahead with the boost in summer travel starting with the U.S. Memorial Day holiday. Benchmark U.S. crude futures are up 33% this year amid a patchwork economic recovery around the world.

Maintenance work that’s expected at a Chevron oil refinery near Los Angeles may tighten local fuel supplies, further elevating prices.

Source: Bloomberg