WASHINGTON — Oil consumption has fallen, demand from U.S. motorists for gasoline is flat at best, and refiners that turn crude into fuel are operating well below capacity. Yet oil prices keep marching toward $90 a barrel, pushing gasoline toward $3 a gallon in many markets, and prompting American drivers to ask, "What gives?"
Blame it on the same folks who brought you $140 oil and $4 gasoline in 2008: Wall Street speculators.
Experts attribute much of the recent rise in prices to flows of speculative money into oil markets. These bets are fueled by investor expectations that the U.S. and global economies are poised to return to growth and spark increased use of oil. Strong growth in China supports the narrative of rising oil consumption and tightening supplies.
"The thinking goes that rising stock (market) prices implies expanding business activity, implies growing energy demand, implies rising oil prices. I think you can make that case, but it's awfully weak," said Michael Fitzpatrick, vice president-energy for MF Global, a financial firm that brokers the sale of contracts for future delivery of oil.
While there are signs of U.S. economic recovery, such as a slight uptick in consumption and strong manufacturing data, there are plenty of ho-hum signs too, including dismal construction spending and continued high unemployment.
"I just don't think if you look across the entire spectrum of the macro-economy that it creates a picture of a growing body of incontrovertible evidence that there is a strong, sustainable recovery. I just don't see it," Fitzpatrick said. "I think it should be closer to the range we were seeing in late summer and early fall, $67 to $72" a barrel.
On the last day of July, oil traded at $67.50 a barrel and gasoline sold at a nationwide average of $2.52 a gallon for regular unleaded. On Thursday, oil prices settled at $84.87 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and regular unleaded gasoline averaged $2.80 a gallon and more than $3 on the West Coast, according to the AAA.
The average price per gallon for regular in the Tampa Bay region was $2.789 on Friday, the AAA said.
"It's the story we've been talking about. . . . It's really about oil being an attractive investment for investors right now," said AAA spokesman Troy Green. "You've seen quite a bit of money flooding into the oil markets because of that."
What's different about today's price run-up from two or three years ago is that oil is now in ample supply.
"If you look at the fundamentals right now, there is certainly an abundance that is available (of oil) to the market for the next 12 months or so. It's not a near-term supply shortfall," said David Dismukes, the associate director of the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Perhaps the only argument that would justify rising prices is that global consumption is expected to grow by 1.6 million bpd (barrels per day) to 86.6 million bpd this year, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
Even so, there's 6 million bpd of oil that's shut-in, a technical way of saying that recoverable oil is being left in the ground by the world's oil producers.
"When you look at inventories and shut-in capacity, (oil) prices today are above what those would indicate," said Daniel Yergin, the author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, the recently updated Pulitzer Prize-winning book that chronicles the history of oil.
When oil traded above $140 a barrel nearly two years ago and pundits warned that the world was running out of oil, Yergin suggested that a glut of oil would come onto the market in 2010 and beyond. The 6 million bpd of oil now on the sidelines suggests that he was right.