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Gasoline prices on way up

Refinery maintenance, switch to summer fuels cited

– Drivers, here’s the bad news: You’ll be paying more for gasoline in the coming weeks.

The good news: You’ll likely pay less than last year. Or the year before, or the year before that.

The price of gasoline held steady into early February, but an increase is almost inevitable this time of year. Pump prices have gone up an average 31 cents a gallon in February over the past three years. And although this year’s rise might not reach the heights of years past, there are reasons for drivers in some regions – the Northeast, for instance – to worry about a painful spike.

“We’re going to get increases and they are going to be noticeable,” said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com and the Oil Price Information Service. “We’re going to get that pop relatively soon.”

The price of crude oil has risen 8 percent over the past month, to $100 a barrel. And analysts expect fuel supplies to begin to decline as refineries dial back production to perform maintenance and make the switch to summer fuels.

Gasoline prices are already creeping higher. The nationwide average price has risen for seven days in a row to $3.34 a gallon, the highest level since October, according to AAA, OPIS and Wright Express. California, Connecticut and New York drivers are paying an average of $3.65 or more, the most in the lower 48 states. Montana and South Carolina drivers are paying $3.10 or less.

But the nationwide average is not expected to quite reach its high point of last year of $3.79 a gallon, set Feb. 27, never mind the highs of $3.94 in 2012 and $3.98 in 2011. AAA predicts a peak of between $3.55 and $3.75 a gallon.

Gasoline prices are 8 percent lower than last year at this time, even though crude oil prices are about the same, in part because gasoline supplies are plentiful. Refiners have kept operations humming to meet increased demand for heating oil during the frigid winter and have produced more gasoline as a result. But the stormy weather has left cars buried under snow, where they don’t use much gasoline.

Now, with the end of the winter in sight, refinery output is expected to slow down as refiners conduct typical seasonal maintenance. Even refiners that are up and running sometimes reduce production at this time of year. They’ll soon switch to making more expensive summer gasoline that is formulated to meet clean air rules, and they don’t want to be stuck with unsold winter gas.

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