April 4, 2007 -- For the past two weeks, Iran has not just been holding 15 British soldiers captive; it's been holding the world's oil markets hostage, too.
"There's been a $5 or $6 premium that's been built into the price of oil over this," said Phil Flynn, vice president and energy analyst at Alaron Trading. "Even though this crisis has ended, the oil market is still on guard that the tensions in the Middle East are going to continue."
Oil prices spiked this morning when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared on television, because of uncertainty over what he was going to announce. When he started awarding medals to the troops who had captured the Britons, traders assumed the worst.
But by the end of Ahmadinejad's television appearance it was apparent that the soldiers were heading home, and the price of a barrel of oil started to retreat from recent highs, giving up more than $1 to drop to about $64.
Analysts say that the price reduction should hold during the coming days but won't translate into lower prices at the pump.
"Things are looking pretty bad for the upcoming summer driving season," said Flynn, citing a new government report showing that the U.S. stockpiles of gasoline fell by 5 million barrels in the past week, much more than analysts were expecting.
Flynn said he believes gasoline prices will head into record territory -- currently a nationwide average of $3.07 -- by the height of the summer season.
"This is the time of year when we're supposed to be building supplies, but it seems like the refiners just can't get ahead of what has been very, very strong demand," he said.
Today's report shows that the national supply of gas is at the low end of its average range for this time of year, meaning the United States will have less gas in the tank before the peak summer driving season in the coming months.
Analysts said that puts the country on the edge, making any disruption in supply -- such as a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico refining regions or an expansion of the crisis in the Middle East -- that much more dangerous.
"Everyone asks me, will we see $4 a gallon? And the answer is, there is a strong possibility that we may see $4 a gallon," said Flynn.