What makes up the price of a gallon of gas?

Soaring gas prices have led to cries for a variety of answers, from Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain's suggestion to suspend the federal gas tax this summer to President Bush's call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and some offshore waters that are now off limits to oil development.

Others have suggested a windfall profits tax on oil companies, although some economists say that might actually hurt supply. Oil companies say they're not to blame for spiking fuel prices, and their earnings, measured against revenue, are in line with other industries.

On top of that, rising oil prices have sharply cut profit margins for refining, and that hits the major oil companies — which both pump oil and refine it for use as gasoline.

A giant like ExxonMobil can handle the blow. Its refining and marketing profits for the first quarter were down 39% from a year ago, but Exxon still banked a nearly $11 billion profit because of the hefty prices earned on crude it pumped out of the ground.

Smaller refiners aren't so fortunate. Sunoco Inc.'s refining and supply business lost $123 million in the first quarter, hurt by lower margins. Tesoro Corp. lost $82 million for the same period.

In any case, huge profits at big oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron aren't because of high prices at the pump. Their massive profits are tied to their exploration and production arms, which are benefiting from record crude prices.

Higher crude costs also have squeezed profits at the refining arms of companies like ConocoPhillips, which don't produce enough crude themselves to refine at full capacity without buying more oil from other producers.

CEO Jim Mulva said ConocoPhillips, the second-largest U.S. refiner behind Valero Energy Corp., buys about 2 million barrels of crude a day at market prices to refine into gasoline and other products.

"If oil costs us $30 a barrel or $40 a barrel or $120 a barrel, that's why the cost of gasoline is what it is," he said. "It's not because of taxes. It's not because of ... refining and distribution. It's because of the cost of oil."

Other factors

But it's not only about the price of oil. Other costs are a factor — though they've remained relatively stable.

For example, federal and state taxes added 40 cents to a gallon of gas in the first three months of this year, roughly the same amount as they added four years ago.

California's 63.9 cents of tax is the nation's highest, Alaska's 26.4 cents the lowest. How the money is used varies from state to state, though the federal take helps to build and maintain highways and bridges.

Marketing and distribution costs — the tab for delivering gasoline from refiner to retailer — were 27 cents to start the year, only 6 cents above the cost four years ago.

The cost of refining added 27 cents to a gallon in the first quarter of this year, a nickel less than what it added in 2004, according to the Energy Information Administration.

That refining occurs at sprawling industrial complexes across the U.S., with most of the biggest along the Gulf Coast. Barrels of crude arrive each day by pipeline, ship and barge. The refineries, by heating, treating and blending the raw oil, turn out products like diesel and lubricating oil.

And, of course, gasoline.

A 'waiting game'

What happens when that gasoline makes its way to your neighborhood gas station?

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