CRS — Rising Gasoline Prices 2012

March 9, 2012

Rising Gasoline Prices 2012 (PDF)Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Average national gasoline prices have increased by $0.46 to $3.78 per gallon between the end of December 2011 and the end of February 2012. This is $0.20 higher than the 2011 average annual gasoline price of $3.58 per gallon. In the first half of 2011, unrest in the Middle East and North Africa contributed to higher crude oil prices, which pushed gasoline prices higher. In early 2012, tensions with Iran are contributing to rising crude prices, which again are pushing up the price of gasoline.

Higher gasoline prices burden the budgets of households and businesses. Higher gasoline costs can increase indebtedness or reduce spending on other goods and services. They also yield a windfall for crude oil producers because the rise in gasoline prices is driven primarily by higher crude oil prices. The revenue increase is primarily for crude oil production as opposed to refining; crude oil is a cost for the refining business.

Crude oil prices are the main determinant of gasoline prices. A key issue affecting crude oil prices in recent months has been uncertainties around supply stemming from tensions with Iran as new U.S. and EU sanctions come into place. Unrest in several small oil producers has also led to supply disruptions. Also, there are persistent concerns about the adequacy of global supply in the face of sustained demand growth in emerging economies. Recent refinery closures in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere may also contribute to higher gasoline prices, particularly in parts of the East Coast.

Many of the policies that may address rising gasoline prices are long term. Investments that produce or consume oil, such as new oil fields, pipelines, cars, or factories, are capital intensive and long term in nature. There are limited short term options available to policy makers to address gasoline price increases. This report briefly covers several short-term options that have been considered by policy makers:

• Strategic Petroleum Reserve Release,

• Gasoline Tax Holiday,

• Relaxing Fuel Specifications,

• Restricting Refined Products Exports,

• Limit Financial Speculation,

• Diplomatic Measures.

It is unclear what the price impact of these short term options would be, and they involve various policy trade offs. Potential costs may include national security, fiscal, and public health priorities.

An additional set of option focuses on longer-term measures that may prevent negative impacts if gasoline prices rise in the future. Policy makers may choose to focus on measures that encourage efficiency, oil production, and alternative fuels. Pursuit of long-term measures in the absence of short-term measures, to the degree short-term measures may (or may not) be effective, may make it more likely that consumers will suffer from high gasoline prices for the time being. However, higher prices may also provide additional market based-incentive investments by consumers and firms in efficiency, energy production, and alternative fuels.

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