NEW YORK —
These dramatic local price swings are happening despite relatively stable oil prices and a national average gasoline price that has hovered around $3.50 per gallon for three years. In 2008, the last time local prices were this volatile, oil spiked to $145 a barrel in July, then plunged below $40 in late December as the global financial crisis sent energy markets reeling. The national average price ranged from $1.62 to $4.11 a gallon.
Nowhere is it more frustrating to buy gas than in Kokomo, Ind., a flat, unassuming blue collar city surrounded by farmland 45 miles north of Indianapolis that regularly sees 10-cent or 20-cent price changes in a single day. On average, the price changes 5 cents there every day and 16 cents every week, the highest in the nation, according to GasBuddy.com.
Jim Brooks, who works at a Chrysler transmission plant in town, does his best to fill up elsewhere. “If I don’t have to buy gas in Kokomo, I don’t,” he said recently at Manjas Marathon station in Kokomo during a lunch break. He bought a soda and some chips, but not gasoline.
Gas station owners set their prices based on how much it cost to buy the last shipment of wholesale gasoline, how much the next shipment will cost, and what competitors are doing. Stations typically make very little on gasoline, because they set the price as low as possible to attract people to profitable convenience stores.
The price they pay for wholesale gasoline is determined by deals between refiners and distributors that are usually based on benchmarks set on exchanges, such as the New York Mercantile Exchange.
When supplies are quick to rise or fall, it means more of what frustrates drivers: Gasoline prices that seem to jump around a few cents every time they fill up, for no rhyme or reason. This year 57 U.S. metro areas have averaged price changes of at least a dime over a week. Last year just 38 cities did, and in 2011 it was just 29 cities.