Elevated gas prices have been top of mind for drivers over the past few months. While prices have fallen in recent weeks, they’re still far from the extreme lows of 2020. So, what’s happening? There are several factors that go into how gas prices are determined. In this post, we’ll explore the main contributors and how they impact vehicle owners each time they pull up at the pump.
The four main components of the retail price of gasoline are the cost of crude oil, refining costs, taxes and distribution and marketing. While prices reflect these components and the profits of those who produce and distribute gasoline, there are additional factors at play that influence prices. These can include geographic location, local market conditions and unforeseen disruptions that lead to additional spend.
The cost of crude oil is the most significant factor of how gas prices are determined. In fact, it accounts for more than half of what we pay for per gallon of gasoline. This means that supply ultimately determines the price of gas. Major oil producers can drive up the price per barrel of crude oil with decisions that slow or cut production to decrease supply. Disruptions and geopolitical issues also slow production. For example, consider the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, the Texas Freeze and the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
Oil producers may also choose to ramp up oil production, increase supply and reduce the price per barrel of crude oil. While this ultimately benefits drivers with lower costs per gallon, this maneuver is rarely about the price per barrel. Oil producers often take this approach in an effort to create a supply imbalance and gain market share from competitors.
Refining oil is another process that impacts the price of gasoline. These costs tend to fluctuate based on the season and geographic location of the refinery in the U.S. Varying types of crude oil require different levels of refinement and rely on the available processing technology at the site where it is produced. Different parts of the country also have stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions and require different gasoline formulations.
Federal gasoline standards mandate specific fuel mixes for different seasons. Gas stations must switch fuels based on the season to comply with EPA regulations and reduce air pollution. Fuel with a lower Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) evaporates at a slower rate than blends with higher RVP. Winter fuel mixes require a higher RVP for engines to start and operate properly in colder temperatures. During the summer months, refiners produce fuel with lower RVP blends to limit unnecessary evaporation due to rising temperatures. Prices historically climb during the summer season because the additives used to lower the fuel’s RVP require a greater level of refinement.
Gasoline is taxed by federal, state and local governments and has the second-highest impact on retail costs. The current federal motor fuel tax rate is 18.40 cents per gallon of gasoline. This tax consists of an excise tax of 18.30 cents per gallon and the 0.10 cent per gallon federal Leaking underground Storage Tank fee.
In addition to excise taxes, states incorporate fees and taxes that include environmental fees, inspection fees, load fees, clean up fees and LUST taxes, license taxes and petroleum taxes. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average of total state taxes and fees on gasoline average 31.02 cents per gallon. Pennsylvania is the state with the highest tax rate on gasoline at 57.60 cents per gallon while Alaska was the lowest at 8.95 cents per gallon.
The price of distribution and marketing are also factored into gas prices. Most refineries use pipelines to ship gasoline to terminals near consuming areas. From there, it is blended with other products and delivered by tanker trucks to individual fueling stations for distribution.
Oil refiners own and operate some gas stations while independent entities purchase fuel to resell to the public at others. Gas prices reflect this markup as well as local factors such as the physical fueling location, market competition and the owner’s marketing strategy. Business operating costs also affect prices and considerations include wages and benefits, equipment, insurance, lease spend, overhead and more.
As you can see, no one person is responsible for the price of gasoline. There are several components that impact how gas prices are determined in a variety of ways. Efforts can be made to alleviate pain at the pump, but prices are ultimately determined by supply and demand. Nothing short of increased gasoline production or reduced demand will have a significant impact on prices.
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