Gasoline tops $3 a gallon at the pump on inventory concerns ahead of summer driving season

AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - The average price of gasoline topped $3 a gallon at the pump Friday, following the recent futures market run-up amid growing concerns that refineries are simply not making enough gas to meet peak summer demand.

But oil and gasoline futures fell on light volume Friday. Analysts said traders had little in the way of news to drive buying or selling, but may have sensed that the gasoline market has peaked.

"There isn't anything happening," said James Williams, an economist with WTRG Economics in London, Ark.

According to the Oil Price Information Service and AAA, the national average price of a gallon of gasoline hit $3.012 Friday, up 2.1 cents overnight. Prices at the pump generally lag the futures markets.

Gasoline futures for June delivery fell 1.14 cents to $2.2362 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Light, sweet crude for June delivery fluctuated in a narrow range early before falling 68 cents a barrel to $62.51 on the Nymex. Also on the Nymex, heating oil futures for June fell less than a penny to $1.845 a gallon, while natural gas prices rose 5.5cents to $8.002 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Brent crude for June delivery fell 35 cents to $65.70 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

Tim Evans, an energy analyst at Citigroup Global Markets, suggested traders may have sensed the gasoline market has peaked. But he cautioned that Friday's low trading volumes make energy markets more difficult than usual to read.

"A lower close in the gasoline market would at least keep hopes alive that we're seeing a seasonal top in that market," Evans said. "(But) the thing about light volume is that it doesn't take that much of a change to push prices back up."

Gas prices have been driven higher in recent months by a plethora of unexpected refinery outages and shutdowns in recent weeks. News Thursday that BP LLC's 400,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Whiting, Ind., will not be operating at full capacity for several months due to unexpected repairs is just the latest in a string of such announcements.

The outages have been reflected in weekly government data which has shown gasoline inventories to be falling at a time of year when most analysts think they should be rising.       "There's ongoing anxiety about refining capacity, refinery outages," Evans said.

The summer driving season begins Memorial Day weekend, and analysts worry refineries won't be producing enough gasoline by then to meet demand.

Despite Friday's declines, Evans said, the gasoline market remains tight.

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