HOUSTON -- With the Memorial Day weekend representing the start of the summer driving season, it might be a good time to plan a trip to the Great Lakes or the Rocky Mountains. Gasoline prices in the nation's midsection should be 10 to 50 cents cheaper per gallon than a year ago.
For comparison shoppers, trips down California's coast or out to the Hamptons don't look quite so appealing. Gasoline prices on the coasts will be 10 to 30 cents a gallon higher than last year.
The sharp differences in gasoline prices around the country reflect all the complexities of the global energy markets. Fighting between militias blocking oil exports from Libya, along with persistent unrest in Iraq and Nigeria and uncertainty surrounding Russian oil supplies, are keeping prices high for the types of oil imported on the East Coast. Fitful maintenance at a handful of refineries in California and Washington state are curbing gasoline supplies on the West Coast, pushing up prices.
At the same time, growing imports of cheap Canadian heavy oil are arriving at Midwest refineries, where maintenance has been smoother this year. That is helping to keep Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa drivers satisfied. And Gulf Coast drivers continue to enjoy the benefits of an abundance of oil and gasoline thanks to gushing fields in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
When experts take all the price divergences into account, they predict a national average at the pump this Memorial Day that will be virtually the same as in 2013.
"We'll be slightly below last year and slightly below the year before nationally, and it will be the lowest price at the pump since 2011," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for GasBuddy. But he added that comparisons of national averages were of little use since "it's really a tale of two countries."
As of Friday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.66, a fraction of a cent lower than last year. But the range was sizable: In California, motorists paid on average $4.13 a gallon, while in Missouri and Arkansas only $3.40, according to the AAA daily fuel gauge report. The AAA auto club is predicting that the most Americans will travel this holiday weekend since 2005, and that 36.1 million people will travel at least 50 miles, up 1.5 percent from 35.5 million last year.
"As the economy continues to improve at a slow and steady pace, consumer spending, disposable income, consumer confidence and the employment outlook are trending up, which is welcomed news for the travel industry," AAA chief operating officer Marshall L. Doney said in a commentary distributed by the auto club.
AAA estimated that 85 percent of travelers would travel to the beach or other amusements by car. It also estimated that airfares would be 6 percent higher than a year ago, while midbudget hotel prices would be up 2 to 3 percent, and car rental prices up 1 percent.
The biggest component of gasoline prices is oil prices, and most oil benchmarks are 10 percent or more higher than last year.
World supplies and demand have been roughly in balance in recent years, as increasing North American production has taken up the slack for interruptions caused by North African and Middle East tensions. But the supply outlook has weakened since the beginning of the year, when it appeared that nuclear energy talks with the West might loosen oil export sanctions on Iran, and hopes brightened that tensions between Libya's militias and its weak central government in Tripoli might ease. Those hopes have been dashed, and Russia's aggressiveness toward Ukraine has raised the prospect of eventual export sanctions on Russia, which supplies as much oil to world markets as Saudi Arabia.
Gasoline prices have generally been higher in recent months than in 2013 also because of complex refinery refitting and maintenance on the West and Gulf coasts. But with the seasonal change from winter to summer blends virtually over, most energy analysts think gasoline prices have peaked, unless a strong hurricane in August or September causes shutdowns of gulf refineries and pipelines.
On the bright side, few energy experts say they think a meaningful drop in Russian oil exports is likely. And while 2.5 million barrels a day of OPEC production in Libya, Iraq, Iran and Nigeria are offline, according to a recent Barclays report, Saudi Arabia and a handful of other producers have kept the cartel's production near its target of 30 million barrels a day.