Consider the game of chicken that plays out every day across Pennsylvania State Highway 441. In Marietta, where the road hugs the Susquehanna River, a Rutter's Farm Store gas station stands on one side, a Sheetz gas station on the other.
Kelly Bosley, who manages Rutter's, doesn't even have to look across the highway to know when Sheetz changes its price for a gallon of gas. When Sheetz raises prices, her own pumps are busy. When Sheetz lowers prices, she has not a car in sight.
She calls Rutter's headquarters to report the competition's new price and wait for instructions.
"I call a lot of times and say, 'They went down, hurry up! Hurry up! Call me! Call me!' Or it could be where theirs goes up, and I'll say, 'Take your time! You know, I like being busy.' But I have no control over that."
You think you feel helpless at the pump?
Bosley makes a living selling gas — and even she has little control over what it costs.
So how exactly are gas prices set? What determines the hair-pulling figure you see displayed in large electronic or plastic numbers? Why is a gallon of gas, say, $4.11 — not $4.10 or $4.12? Why is the price different across the street?
It all starts with oil.
The biggest factor in the skyrocketing price of gasoline is the historic ascent of crude oil, which has surged from $45 per barrel in 2004 to more than $135 this past week, setting new record highs all the while.
In the first quarter of this year, based on a retail price of gas that now seems like a steal — $3.11 a gallon — crude oil accounted for all but about a dollar, or 70%, of the cost, according to the federal government.
The rest is a complex mix of factors, from the cost of turning oil into gas to taxes to marketing costs to, sometimes, nothing more than the competitive whims of your local gas station owner.
Not that understanding the breakdown makes it any less cringe-inducing to fill 'er up.
How it all works
First a primer on how gas gets to your tank:
Once oil is pumped from the ground, it can be sold on the spot market, a last-minute trading arena where oil companies and distributors buy and sell to each other, or straight to refiners. After it's brewed into gasoline, the product can again be sold on the spot market, or directly to wholesalers, who in turn can supply their own stations or sell it to other retailers.
Each step of the way, buyers and sellers negotiate a price until, finally, drivers pay the ultimate tab at the pump.
At the starting point of all this is the price of oil — which, like the oil itself, is nothing if not crude.
The knee-jerk villains are the oil companies, fat with multibillion-dollar profits, frequent targets of populist anger. But wait: The oil companies don't set the price of oil or the cost of a gallon of gas.
Prices are a function of the open market, the result of futures contracts being traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, or Nymex, and other exchanges around the world.
Buying the current July crude oil futures contract means you're buying oil that will be delivered by the end of July. But most investors who trade futures have no intention of ever accepting the underlying oil: Like stock investors who frequently buy and sell their holdings, they're simply betting that prices will rise or fall.
Of late, on the Nymex, oil futures have been rising.