Factors Influencing Gas Prices
Gas prices are primarily determined by crude oil prices, refining costs, distribution and marketing expenses, taxes, and consumer demand. These factors are subject to market forces and regional variations, making it a complex issue influenced by various economic and geopolitical factors.
Gasoline prices are a constant concern for consumers, often triggering debates and discussions on the role of the oil industry and politicians in influencing these prices. However, it's essential to understand that gas prices are not controlled by a single entity but are the result of various market forces. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the key factors that impact the price of gasoline.
Crude Oil and Gasoline Prices
Crude oil is the fundamental raw material for gasoline production, making crude oil prices a pivotal factor in determining gasoline prices. On average, crude oil accounted for 56% of gasoline prices in the decade leading up to 2020. However, this figure fluctuates significantly. For instance, in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, crude oil made up only 43% of gasoline costs. In contrast, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to a surge in both oil and gas prices.
Crude oil is a globally traded commodity and, over time, its pricing power has shifted due to alternative supply sources and increased demand from emerging economies. Not all types of crude oil are equally useful for gasoline production. Lighter, sweeter crude is preferred, as it yields more gasoline per barrel and has lower sulfur content. Local preferences depend on a refinery's processing capabilities.
Refining Costs and Gasoline Pricing
Regardless of the type of crude oil, it cannot be directly used as gasoline. Refineries are responsible for processing crude oil into gasoline and adding necessary additives. On average, refining costs and profits accounted for 14% of the retail gasoline price in the decade through 2020. These costs vary with seasonal and regional blending requirements aimed at reducing pollution and the inclusion of additives like ethanol.
The price of wholesale gasoline reflects supply and demand factors distinct from crude oil. For instance, U.S. gasoline prices typically rise during the summer due to increased demand. However, U.S. refining capacity did not keep pace with demand growth, and increased gasoline exports further limited domestic supply.
Distribution and Marketing Costs in Gasoline Pricing
After refining, gasoline must be transported to storage tanks and distributed to local gas stations, which require staffing and maintenance. Distribution and marketing costs accounted for 14% of the U.S. retail gasoline price in the decade through 2020. These entities, like suppliers, have faced allegations of manipulating gas prices.
In September 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) expressed concerns about mergers potentially leading to price coordination and collusive practices in the retail fuel industry. In November 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden requested the FTC to investigate potential illegal and anti-competitive behavior in the oil and gas industry that might contribute to higher prices for consumers.
Taxes and Gasoline Prices
Taxes play a substantial role in gasoline prices. In the decade leading to 2020, state and local taxes accounted for 16% of the retail gasoline price. Federal gasoline taxes were 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.40 cents per gallon for diesel as of July 1, 2021. State taxes varied widely, with California having the highest state gasoline tax at 58.8 cents per gallon, while Alaska had the lowest at 8.95 cents per gallon as of Jan. 1, 2022.
The federal gasoline tax rate has remained unchanged since 1993, but several states have raised their gas taxes to maintain road repair spending in line with inflation. For instance, Virginia raised its tax by 5 cents per gallon in July 2021, and New Jersey increased its gasoline tax by 9.3 cents per gallon in October 2020. Gasoline taxes can be significantly higher in other countries, averaging about $4 per gallon in Western Europe.
Impact of Consumer Demand on Gasoline Prices
Consumer demand also plays a significant role in gasoline prices. The rebound in demand since the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the increase in retail gasoline prices from their 2020 average of $2.17 per gallon. While gasoline consumption plummeted in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions, it largely rebounded in 2021. Gasoline prices can vary widely as they strive to balance supply and demand, as U.S. consumers tend to be slow to adjust their driving habits in response to changes in gasoline prices.
Gasoline prices are influenced by a complex interplay of factors, including crude oil prices, refining costs, distribution and marketing expenses, taxes, and consumer demand. These factors are subject to market forces and regional variations, determining gas prices as a multifaceted issue affected by various economic and geopolitical factors. Blaming specific politicians or the industry should be done with skepticism, as gas prices are largely shaped by global market dynamics, except for gas taxes, which tend to be lower in the U.S. compared to other parts of the world.