Gas prices in California higher than at any time in past 5 years. When will the increase stop?

Gasoline prices continued to increase over the past week in Fresno and across California, but there are hopes that oil refineries in the state may be on the brink of resuming normal operations after a spate of maintenance work.

The statewide average price for regular unleaded on Monday was $4.03 per gallon, about three cents higher than a week ago and 60 cents higher than the price on March 22, according to AAA’s daily gas price report. Prices across the state are now higher than any time in the last five years.

In most of the central San Joaquin Valley, the average pump price for regular unleaded continued to hover – barely – below $4 per gallon in the AAA report. In the Fresno-Clovis metro area, the average on Monday was $3.97, three cents higher than a week ago. On March 22, it was $3.36 per gallon.

GasBuddy.com, a website that compiles customer reports on prices at gas stations, found that the lowest pump prices for regular unleaded in the Fresno area on Monday were $3.50 per gallon at two stations in the northwest part of the city. The highest price shown on the GasBuddy map in Fresno was $4.30 per gallon at a gas station near West Shaw Avenue and Highway 99.

Elsewhere in the Valley, AAA’s gas report showed that average prices were:

Hanford-Corcoran: $3.97 on Monday; $3.95 a week ago; $3.37 a month ago.

Madera-Chowchilla: $3.97 on Monday; $3.96 a week ago; $3.37 a month ago.

Visalia/Tulare/Porterville: $3.99 on Monday; $3.94 a week ago; $3.35 a month ago.

Merced’s average reached $4 per gallon on Monday, up from $3.94 a week ago and $3.43 a month ago.

Nationally, the average price for regular unleaded was $2.84 per gallon, more than a dollar cheaper than the California average.

Maintenance at refineries

Experts attributed California’s gas spikes in recent weeks to both planned and unplanned maintenance at refineries in the northern and southern part of the state, including a switch in production to summer-blend fuels. Six of 10 refineries in the state reduced production because of maintenance, but AAA reported that they are making progress to restoring their full production.

Imported gasoline helped make up for some of the lost production, AAA analysts said, but created increased costs to distribute fuel to retail stations and, thus, higher prices for drivers.

“While imports are helping and West Coast refinery maintenance is nearly finished for the time being, it’s too early to know if this is enough to keep state averages from leveling off just yet,” said Jeanette Casselano, a AAA spokesperson.

“The West Coast may ultimately see some relief from previous refinery troubles,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. Other factors, however, could still come into play to affect gas prices nationwide and in California – and not in a pleasant way.

International variable

The rate of price increases generally leveled off over the past week, but DeHaan cautioned that the U.S. might put an end to waivers allowing countries to keep buying oil from Iran as soon as Tuesday, even as other oil-producing nations in OPEC have reduced their output of crude oil.

“Such a loss of oil in the current environment of OPEC cuts and rising demand would only serve to cause gas prices to continue advancing, something that has repeatedly drawn the scorn of President Trump,” DeHaan said, “but with such a policy change and waivers perhaps ending, it could directly cause another round of gas price increases just as the national average reaches its highest level in months and points to a more painful summer at the pump.”

“If OPEC fails to increase output to offset the likely drop from an end to Iran waivers, expect oil prices to continue to surge,” he added. “This will cost Americans billions if the administration enforces the end to waivers.”

Despite the recent increases, gas prices in California and the Valley remain well below their all-time highs. In Fresno County, the highest recorded average price in the AAA report for unleaded regular was $4.66 per gallon in June 2008, in the early stages of an economic recession.

Other Valley counties and California saw their average prices peak in the fall of 2012, when prices were in the $4.60- to $4.70-per-gallon range.

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.