Cover Story: Pump prices heading higher?

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the gas pump, think again.

Economists say we could see the highest gas prices ever this year.  We're talking well over the four-dollar mark.

Economists say you could be paying an extra $200-300 more for gas this year.

Gas prices have never been this high at the start of a new year, and that's coming off 2011 which was the priciest year ever for gasoline.

It's jumping now because of taxes and other factors pushing up prices.

It was just a few weeks ago we were doing stories about gas going down to $2.99 a gallon.

In Charlotte on Friday it's jumped to $3.39, $3.41 and as high as as $3.49 for regular unleaded.

"It stinks," says one driver.

North Carolina raised its gas tax about four cents a gallon January 1.  That coincided with a federal ethanol tax break worth about four and a half cents that went away.  And unrest in the Persian Gulf that's sending prices higher.

All factors that combined have sent gas prices across the area 15-cents higher in the last week.

"It goes down slow.. but goes up fast," said another driver.

And it doesn't look good going down the road.

AAA Carolinas' Tom Crosby told us, "There's nothing on the horizon that's depressing the price of gas."

And that's depressing especially when you consider the average family stuck 4,155 dollar bills in their tank in gas last year.  The most we've ever spent in one year.

Gas last year averaged out to be $3.47 cents in North Carolina, a record high.

It was 17-cents lower, $3.30 in South Carolina, also an all-time high.

It's never been this high at the start of a new year.

And if the economy improves, look out.

"We're really looking at a big hike in the next few months especially now with the economy's recovery. When economies recover prices go up. When economies suffer prices go down. It's a conundrum," says Crosby.

Higher oil prices most assuredly will touch off a wave of higher prices from food to shipping everything we buy to airfares.

Oil believe it or not has become America's biggest export.

Refineries are producing it like crazy and we aren't using as much of it right now.

Tom Kloza is chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service.

"Right now, across the globe," Kloza said, "it's the product that refiners can make the most money on and it's the product that's in demand in emerging economies."

Which is also helping drive up the price.

Gasoline is the only product where you can see the prices as you drive down the road..

Perhaps that's one reason it raises so many peoples' ire when they see it go up.

Oil and gas analyst Mike Breard told us, "If every grocery store put the price of milk or bread or orange juice up on their parking lot.. people would talk a lot more about milk and bread and orange juice prices."

Gas prices are 20-cents a gallon higher than they were at this time last year.

Historically, it can go up about 35-percent from New Year's Day to summertime.

With prices now in the $3.35-range, some are predicting gas will climb to four bucks a gallon by this summer.

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