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Gas prices soar past $3.50 per gallon: Are Middle Eastern uprisings to blame?

Gas prices have been only modestly affected by fighting in Libya, but a 'fear factor' is driving up oil futures, which in turn drive gas prices.

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At least, the raw volume of oil production appears adequate for now, Swann adds.

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The price rise does reflect a real uncertainty about future supplies, however. If it's Libya today, could it be someone else tomorrow? "Saudi Arabia can't cover everybody," Swann says.

Another factor, some analysts say, is concern about the type of oil that Libya produces. Not all crude oil is created equal, and key refineries in Southern Europe are designed to rely on Libya's high-quality product, says Sarah Emerson, president of Energy Security Analysis Inc., a consulting firm in Wakefield, Mass.

"Saudi crude is not a good alternative to the Libyan crude," Ms. Emerson says. At least temporarily, that introduces some marketplace disruption, since those refineries must look for other sources of so-called sweet crude.

Given the upward trend in oil prices, she says there's nothing surprising about the rise in US gas prices over the past couple of weeks.

Still, this kind of surge in both oil and gas prices doesn't happen every day. One week in February marked the biggest seven-day jump in gasoline prices since the US Energy Information Administration began tracking weekly numbers in 1990 – with the exception of a week right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

According to the EIA, a $10 per barrel rise oil prices typically translates into a jump of about 24 cents per gallon in the retail price of gasoline. The shift usually occurs within about two months, with about half of the price change occurring in first two weeks of the change in oil prices.

Since the beginning of this year, a gallon of gas has gained 44 cents in price – stunning, but not out of line considering that crude oil's price has gained about $20 per barrel since early December.

The question on everyone's lips: Where will oil prices head next? They could fall, if the situation in Libya and the surrounding region appears to move towards stability.

On the other hand, prices could surge much further on any sign that unrest might spread to Saudi Arabia.

An analysis by the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's labeled that "unlikely" last week.

"We believe that the recent announcement of a sizable package of extra social spending, wage increases, and additional public sector jobs underlines that the Saudi government is mindful of potential risks, and is trying to assuage social pressures by tapping its sizable fiscal reserves," the S&P report said.

Some Saudi citizens have called for a day of protest against their government on March 11.

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