U.S. gasoline prices are almost certain to hit fresh record highs this spring or summer when motorists hit the roads for vacation season, the AAA (search) auto group said on Thursday.
"All of the dynamics are in place for U.S. motorists to pay new record high prices again this year," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for the AAA.
U.S. average pump prices for self-serve gas are currently $1.92 a gallon, about 13 cents below the all-time record hit last May and 22 cents higher than a year ago, the AAA said in its daily survey on Thursday.
Sundstrom said a spike in U.S. gasoline futures to new peaks on the New York Mercantile Exchange and soaring costs for crude oil, the feedstock refiners use to make fuel, had already caused some pump prices to rocket higher.
NYMEX gasoline futures (search) prices serve as a benchmark for most wholesale gasoline traded in the United States, and they have surged amid concerns over strong demand growth and worries OPEC could become comfortable defending higher crude prices.
One OPEC official said $80 crude was possible.
"Some retailers have overreacted to some of the media reports of $80 a barrel crude and now the two-day run-up in the wholesale futures by posting 20-cent increases in their pump prices," said Sundstrom.
He cautioned retailers to wait to see if the price hikes some see are realized once they get supplies at their stations. Sundstrom said the AAA had reports of the 20-cent price hikes at pumps in Cleveland, Ohio.
An analyst with the Energy Information Administration (search), the statistical arm of the Department of Energy, said he would not be surprised if prices broke the record this year, but added that it's not a given.
"We may never see today's record NYMEX gasoline price translate into a record retail price because the NYMEX price represents New York Harbor reformulated gasoline, and a lot can happen by May or June, when we are looking for a peak," said Mike Burdette of the EIA.
On Thursday, NYMEX gasoline futures hit a record of $1.5450 a gallon. By the time the NYMEX ended active trade, gasoline had settled at $1.5075 a gallon. A year ago, wholesale gasoline futures on the NYMEX were 40 cents lower.
The record retail price as counted by the EIA is $2.064 a gallon, also in late May of 2004.
While gasoline prices are near record highs in nominal terms, when adjusted for inflation they are still well below the roughly $3 a gallon peak seen in 1981.