How Oil Price Volatility Could Affect Consumers

Consumers may have withstood $100 per barrel in summer 2008, but can they now?

Jan. 17, 2011 — -- Drivers may have blocked out of their memory the summer of 2008. That was when gas prices broke $4 per gallon, causing shipping companies, airlines and even restaurants to add surcharges to help defray their costs.

Oil traded at $91 a barrel on Friday, though some analysts are predicting it will break the $100 mark this year. So consumers may have to brace themselves for another hot, expensive summer.

Daniel O'Connell of the brokerage firm MF Global said consumers may have been able to withstand the $100 per barrel price tag in summer 2008, but not this year.

"The economy wasn't what it is today. People didn't have as much trouble filling their huge SUV trucks," said O'Connell, vice president of energy products. "If you see crude spike over $100, it will be very destructive for any recovery that we may be having."

The Energy Department will be releasing its weekly figures Tuesday, one day later than usual because of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. As of Jan. 10, the average price of gasoline in the U.S. was $3.09 a gallon, 34 cents more than a year ago, according to the Energy Information Administration. The West Coast had the highest regional price, at $3.26 per gallon. The Rocky Mountain region had the lowest, at $2.86 per gallon.

As of Jan. 14, California had the most expensive gasoline on the mainland, at $3.33, while Hawaii was the state with the most expensive overall, at $3.70, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Utah sold the cheapest gas, at $2.80 per gallon.

Gas price increases already may have spiked heating bills because of the cold winter weather in many parts of the country. But while gas prices may be on the rise now, summer could be even worse because of traveler demand.

Many consumer analysts are predicting a return to prices of $4 per gallon or even higher as the weather heats up.

Brokerage firm Auerbach Grayson said oil may reach $117 by the end of the year, according to Bloomberg News.

Morgan Stanley issued a report on Jan 10 forecasting oil prices will be above $100 a barrel in 2011. Growing global demand due to economic growth in India and China and a recovering U.S. economy have caused a decline in crude oil and product inventories, which are contributing to higher prices.

In a survey conducted in November, 49 percent of chief financial officers of oil and gas exploration and processing firms said they expected global demand for oil to "increase somewhat" this year compared to last year. In the BDO USA 2011 Energy Outlook Survey, 22 percent expected the global demand to increase "substantially."

Charles Dewhurst of BDO Natural Resources said the BP oil spill of April 2010 is still contibuting to lower than expected supply levels, placing upward pressure on prices.

"The Gulf of mexico is one of the relatively few areas of the world where there are large untapped reserves of oil," Dewhurst said. "The fact that the permitting process is more difficult is one reason the major oil companies have already decided to leave it alone. You're taking a lot of the future supply of oil out of the picture."

The highest price estimates are still nowhere near the record set for price per barrel in July 2008. Oil traded then at $147.27 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the world's largest physical commodity futures exchange.

Only 61 Percent of Gas Price Is for Oil

O'Connell said oil prices may reach $100 briefly this year, but will settle in a range between $88 and $92. O'Connell said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, an oil cartel of about 11 countries supplying about 40 percent of the world's crude oil, probably will begin increasing its supply in the near future.

"The price could break $100, but not for an extended amount of time," said O'Connell. "OPEC would probably squash any trading that would prolong that."

Because the economy still is recovering and unemployment still is relatively high, demand for oil is not as high as it could be, said O'Connell.

On Jan. 7, the Department of Labor reported the jobless rate was 9.4 percent, a 19-month low. Jobless claims increased to 445,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday. Claims increased by 35,000 to the highest level since October.

While crude oil prices greatly influence gas prices, a number of other inputs contribute to the actual cost. American refineries produce between 19 and 21 gallons of motor gasoline from one barrel of crude oil, which is about 42 gallons. The rest of the barrel produces distillate and residual fuel oil and other products, according to the Energy Information Administration.

For the cost of each gallon of retail gas at the pump, 61 percent reflects the cost of the actual crude oil, according to the Energy Department. The other 10 percent reflects distributing and marketing, 11 percent is towards refining costs and profits and 18 percent is towards federal and state taxes.

The federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents per gallon and the average state tax is 22.01 cents per gallon as of Jan. 1, 2010, according to the Energy Information Administration.