WASHINGTON — Despite weak demand in the U.S. and Europe, oil prices climbed this week to near $90 a barrel and gasoline prices have passed $3 a gallon on the West Coast and parts of the Northeast.
Why? If demand is down and supplies are plentiful — and they are — why would prices be going up?
Because Wall Street speculators are driving up oil and gasoline prices again — just in time to dampen holiday cheer.
"It's all about investor optimism, and that's been the story about 2010 ... that's the primary reason why we're seeing oil prices at $90 (a barrel) and gasoline making an uncharacteristic climb in December towards $3 a gallon," said Troy Green, a national spokesman for the AAA Motor Club, which monitors gasoline prices.
AAA's Fuel Gauge Report shows the nationwide average for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline stood at $2.968 on Wednesday. That's up 11 cents a gallon from a month ago and 33 cents a gallon over one year ago. That means it costs about $1.65 more per fill-up than a month ago and $4.95 more than a year ago.
It's even worse on the West Coast, where this week prices have averaged higher than $3.15 a gallon, according to Energy Department data.
If oil prices keep climbing beyond $100 per barrel, as Goldman Sachs projects for 2011, higher fuel prices may blunt efforts by the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve to stimulate the weak economy.
"I think we're at that point. With (nearly) 10 percent unemployment, it's a much more impoverished consumer that can't afford it. It's almost a bludgeoning instrument in terms of what it will do to consumer sentiment," said John Kilduff, a veteran energy analyst and partner in the hedge fund Again Capital. "What might have been a very bright shopping season could get the wind taken out of its sails by these high prices."
Rising prices could erase the stimulus coming from the 2 percentage point reduction in payroll taxes proposed this week by President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders. This would hit the working poor particularly hard.
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