Gasoline prices have been rising and represent a threat .. or, at the very least, head-winds .. to economic recovery. American drivers could experience record high gas prices over the remainder of this year. This price escalation is occurring in the face of domestic crude oil production that has increased dramatically over the past few years .. and, at a time when demand for gasoline is approaching the lowest level in a decade. Moreover, the U.S. has become a net exporter of gasoline. Still, gas prices are rising, providing political fodder for exploitation in the presidential campaign.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) collects, analyzes, and disseminates a wide range of information and data products covering energy production, stocks, demand, imports, exports, and prices. This includes historical data and on-going updates on regional and national gasoline and diesel fuel prices. The following graph shows the history of weekly gas prices from January 22, 2001 to February 20, 2012. The data is sourced from the U.S. EIA’s Table 12, and represents the national retail price (dollars per gallon) for all grades and all formulations .

Over this period, the record peak U.S. Retail price occurred on July 14, 2007, at $4.17 per gallon. Spanning the Bush years, EIA’s records show falling production until 2005 and flat production from 2005 until 2009 .. and higher consumption levels. Moreover, these years saw minimal oil company investment in renewable and alternative energy ventures .. and a long, well documented succession of federal budget cuts for alternative energy. Under these circumstances, price escalations are understandable. While prices plunged during the Great Recession, they have risen steadily since Obama was sworn in. This is the case despite domestic crude oil production that has increased dramatically over the past few years to the highest level of output in 8 years .. and at a time when inventories of stored oil are unusually high .. and at a time when demand for gasoline is approaching the lowest level in a decade .. and at a time when the U.S. has become a net exporter of gasoline, diesel and jet fuels for the first time in 60 years.

Given this context, the price of oil and gasoline has leaped far beyond conventional supply and demand variables. The hubristic accusations that “Obama environmental policies” are at fault simply don’t add up. A far more rational explanation is that with increased tension over Iran the last few months, financial speculators are fanning the Iranian fear factor into ever-higher prices. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of oil contracts in the futures markets are not held by companies that need oil, for instance airlines and oil companies. Rather, they are held by investors that are looking to make money from their speculative positions. These investors don’t actually take delivery of the oil. They buy the paper, and hope to bid up and sell it for more than they paid for it … before they have to take delivery. How much of the price inflation is due to a speculative premium .. is a guessing game.