(NEW YORK) -- As the petroleum market spins its wheel of fortune daily, drivers can't seem to catch a break. Crude prices were headed ever upward before they crashed 15 percent last week, taking the worst weekly price beating since 2008.
Oil made up a bit of that ground on Monday but at the pumps, drivers have seen no relief from last week's tumble in crude oil prices.
The pump price of gasoline, also up slightly Monday, continues to fluctuate, seemingly unattached to the price of crude. Not surprisingly, motorists are fuming.
The Department of Energy declared Monday that gas prices nationally have risen to a little less than $4 a gallon on average. Regions with the biggest price increases from a week ago included the lower Atlantic states and the West Coast, minus California.
Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, which tracks gas prices coast to coast, admits the fluctuations in the pump price of gas are "very difficult for people to understand." He explains why the recent decline in the price of crude didn't translate into cheaper gas: "The bottleneck is the refiners -- the middlemen."
At the same time that inventories of crude are increasing, inventories of gasoline are dropping. "For 10 consecutive weeks gas inventories have been dropping -- and now we're headed into the big summer driving season," says DeHaan. Result: no price break for consumers.
Add to this a cresting Mississippi River and some unfortunate accidents of timing. A number of U.S. refineries were closed a year ago, when the price of gas was lower and refining was less profitable. Getting them back online takes time. Further, an electric power failure two weeks ago in Texas knocked out 4.4 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
Oil industry expert Andrew Lipow -- no conspiracy buff -- calls this simply "a confluence of events." We've got crude aplenty, he says, but a diminished capacity to turn it quickly into gasoline.
There's another complication at work, says DeHaan. Gas station owners respond one way when the wholesale price of gas is rising, but a different way when it falls.
"Stations are quick to raise their prices at the pump," DeHaan explains. "They do it in anticipation that they themselves will have to pay more for their next wholesale load. Today's owner is looking at the numbers and seeing that the wholesale price is up maybe 20 cents a gallon. If he's going to have to buy 8,000 gallons, that's $16,000. Where is he going to get that? He can get it by raising retail prices quickly."
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