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This summer's gas price forecast better than last

The higher prices, linked to rising oil costs, are still lower compared with last Memorial Day.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / May 21, 2009

A gasoline attendant pumps gas in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday. Oil prices hit a six-month high this week, climbing above $62 a barrel.

Rick Bowmer/AP

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New York

Gasoline prices, which surprised many by jumping 27 cents a gallon in the past month, may be within 10 to 15 cents from topping out, some energy experts say.

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The argument for gasoline prices stabilizing or declining goes like this: The US economy is still not out of the woods. In fact, demand for gasoline remains moderate. And, if gasoline prices continue to rise for whatever reason, refiners will step up production since they have plenty of spare capacity.

“We’ll see supplies start to come back and that will take edge off,” says Sander Cohan, an energy analyst at Energy Security Analysis Inc. in Wakefield, Mass. “Prices usually peak after Memorial Day, perhaps sometime in June.”

But for this Memorial Day weekend, the rising prices – now at $2.36 a gallon according to AAA – mean it will cost more to get to Uncle Joe’s annual backyard barbeque.

“It will just be a minor increase in the cost of the trip,” says Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for AAA, the national motor club based in Heathrow, Fla.

Americans plan to drive 640 miles this weekend, AAA found in a survey. Factoring in the nation’s average fuel economy, this will mean the trip will cost an extra $6.97, hardly a budget breaker.

Lower fuel prices compared with last year are a prime reason AAA recently predicted that travel this Memorial Day will rise by 1.5 percent, or 500,000 travelers, compared with a drop of 10 percent last year when gasoline prices were $3.94 a gallon, $1.58 higher than this year.

“More worrisome is the effect on the overall economy and the consumer outlook depending on the degree society is fearful of a return to much higher gasoline prices,” says Mr. Sundstrom.

Some energy experts – many of them surprised by the current run-up – don’t think consumers need to get worked up. Mr. Cohan predicts gasoline prices at the pump will peak at $2.45 a gallon and then come back down. But, he admits being nervous about the forecast.

Other energy analysts forsee the price of gasoline continuing to rise because most of the increase is linked to the rising price of oil. At $60.61 per barrel, oil is up the equivalent of 31 cents a gallon in the past month compared to 27 cents a gallon for gasoline.

“Our projection is that oil is now heading for $70 to $74 a barrel, then hopefully it stabilizes,” says Phil Flynn, director of research at Alaron Trading in Chicago. “Then, it depends on the economy from that point forward.”