Oil Drops 14%, Gas Only 3.4% – Fuel Prices Vary Significantly

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In recent weeks, the price of a benchmark crude oil has fallen by double digits, while the price of gasoline in Little Rock and the rest of Arkansas has not dropped proportionately.

That disconnect may leave motorists wondering why gasoline prices haven't dropped more than they have.

The average price for West Texas intermediate crude oil fell from $95.70 a barrel on July 29 to $82.26, or 14 percent, on Aug. 19, the most recent full week available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. During that period, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline in metro Little Rock dropped from $3.57 to $3.45, or 3.4 percent, according to AAA.

Similarly, in the past month the price of regular statewide has fallen 3.1 percent.

Crude oil prices account for 68 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline, according to the Energy Information Administration.

"There's an old saying in [the] gasoline [industry]," Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, Calif., said Monday. "Prices go up like a rocket and down like a feather. There is a higher disconnect between the actual price of oil and the price of gasoline." Gasoline prices have been viewed as the "last bastion of competition," Dugan said, "but in this case that appears to have failed." Still, gasoline prices in the state vary significantly.

Gasbuddy.com, a website that allows consumers to post the lowest and highest gasoline prices they've seen, reported that the lowest price on Monday in Arkansas was $3.09 at a Phillips 66 station on Asher Avenue in Little Rock. The highest price was $3.73 at a Citgo station on Van Buren Street in Eureka Springs.

Refining accounts for about 15 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline, taxes cover about 11 percent and distribution and marketing accounts for 6 percent.

"Gasoline prices aren't coming down anywhere near as much as [crude oil]," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. "Refiners appear to be taking 30 to 50 cents a gallon more than they should."

The correct correlation, however, for determining Arkansas gasoline prices is the price of Brent crude oil and not the price of West Texas crude, said James Williams, energy economist and owner of WTRG Economics near Russellville. Brent crude comes from oil fields in the North Sea and is the price for two-thirds of the world's internationally traded oil.

The two crude oil prices are almost always close to each other, with seldom more than a $5 a barrel difference, Williams said. It is rare that the difference is as much as $25 a barrel, Williams said.

West Texas intermediate crude closed at $87.27 a barrel Monday and Brent crude was $113.08 a barrel.

"The two prices don't look anything alike now," Williams said.

West Texas crude is based on delivery prices to Cushing, Okla. Oil delivered to Cushing mostly serves refineries in the Midwest, because there are no pipelines to carry the oil south, Williams said.

"Right now at Cushing, there are 34 million barrels of oil, but the refineries only need an inventory closer to 20 million barrels," Williams said. "There is way too much crude at Cushing. The crude at Cushing is artificially below international market prices. The rest of the crude oil we use in the U.S. is tied to world prices [such as for Brent crude]." Most of the oil refined in the U.S. is not refined through Cushing, he said.

Refiners in most of the country are paying the higher Brent crude price, Williams said. Gasoline sold in Arkansas is delivered from the Gulf Coast and refined from Brent crude, Williams said.

"It is like what would happen if Florida had a good crop of oranges but there was no way to get them outside of the state," Williams said.

Gasoline refiners are shipping oil out of Cushing by truck and rail to take advantage of the lower price, Williams said. But they are only delivering about 300,000 barrels a day south from Cushing, a small percentage of the 15 million barrels of oil refined daily in the U.S., he said.

There is a pipeline that is being proposed to be built from Canada through Cushing to the Gulf Coast, but it still must receive approval from the U.S. State Department, said Mike Right, spokesman for AAA. Even after approval is received, it will be years before the pipeline can be completed.

A study released Friday by the State Department determined that the pipeline could be built and operated with a minimum of environmental concerns.

The pipeline, known as the Keystone XL, would stretch from Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, through Montana and South Dakota, down through the Midwest and Oklahoma, before being routed to refineries in Texas on the Gulf coast.

Critics say the oil it would carry – extracted from an area known as the "oil sands" or "tar sands" – is especially dirty, takes an excessive amount of energy to get out of the ground and poses a threat to wildlife along the project's 1,711-mile course.

Meanwhile, there have been few claims that oil companies are price gouging.

"In almost all states, which govern gouging laws, gouging is always in connection with a natural disaster," she said. "You can get fined if the dramatic, unjustified price increase happens when there's been a natural disaster. So when you have this creeping anomaly in the price of gasoline, the laws are generally not there to get at it."

Cooper, with the Consumer Federation of America, said the refining industry has become highly concentrated.

"There have been attorneys general who have complained at the state level [about high gasoline prices]," Cooper said. "But essentially our antitrust officials and consumer protection officials have to have a lot of backbone and right now they don't. They won't fight with the oil companies."

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