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Oil prices spark early jump at the pump, continued rise likely

By Malena Carollo
Gas price have been on a rollercoaster this summer because of oil prices and geopolitical issues. [Dirk Shadd, Times]

Summer is roller coaster season, but theme parks aren't the only places with dramatic ups and downs.

Gas prices have boomeranged from an unusually early low this summer to reach a two-month high of $2.28 a gallon statewide Wednesday. A year ago, drivers may fondly recall, they could find prices at the pump dipping under the $2 mark.

What's going on?

Geopolitical issues — including relations with Venezuela — caused prices to fluctuate earlier this summer than last year, dropping them to a seasonal low quickly.

Tampa Bay prices have moderated recently but could be climbing soon, especially if the Gulf of Mexico becomes tumultuous.

"We're just kind of hitting that (low) spot earlier this year," Mark Jenkins, spokesperson for AAA, the Auto Club Group, said in an interview.

According to GasBuddy.com, which monitors pump prices, the national average reached $2.36 per gallon Wednesday, the highest in two months. The surge comes just a month after drivers were flirting with paying less than $2 a gallon at the pump.

Volatility in summer prices isn't all that unusual, Jenkins said. What has been different this year is how early the low was reached and how quickly it passed.

Pump prices hit an unseasonal 12-year low around the Fourth of July 4 at $2.02 per gallon in Tampa Bay and began to rise rapidly shortly after that.

Previous coverage: Gas prices going into Fourth of July near 12-year low

There was a similar price progression in 2016, but it came much later in the summer. The lowest price was in August 2016, dipping below $2 per gallon.

According to AAA, the average price for gas between June 1 and Aug. 31 in Tampa Bay was $2.48 per gallon in 2015 and $2.13 per gallon in 2016. So far this summer, gas has averaged $2.16 per gallon.

One reason for the recent volatility, Jenkins said, is the price of oil. Barrel prices dropped sooner in the year than they did in 2016.

"We kind of got down to that bottom a lot sooner," Jenkins said.

More recently, concerns over relations with Venezuela have pushed prices up slightly, meaning more pain at the pump could be coming soon.

"Should sanctions be placed on Venezuela's oil industry, oil markets would likely climb as Gulf Coast refiners scramble to find oil supply to replace oil from Venezuela," a GasBuddy.com release said on Monday.

What that trend means is that gas prices could reach a higher peak than in recent years.

"We're still not in the most active period of hurricane season," Jenkins said. "That certainly has the potential to cause gas prices to rise if there's a major storm that goes into the Gulf (of Mexico)."

Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, said that for prices to be significantly affected, there would need to be a Category 3 hurricane or greater headed for oil production spots such as Louisiana or Texas.

AAA's Jenkins said Tampa Bay could see gas prices rival this year's high of $2.46 per gallon, but jumping up to $3 per gallon is unlikely. Higher rates of domestic crude oil production, he said, will likely keep prices from spiking.

Previous coverage: Local gas prices plummet as Fourth of July holiday travel approaches

Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo on Twitter.