Chicago, We Have A Problem!!

Comment on Monday’s prediction:  Yup, prices rose to $2.49.  CORRECT!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 6:30PM:  I can’t believe this is the third time in a week that I need to post an update.  It seems to be a hot mess at the BP refinery in Whiting, which is a key source of distilled gasoline in the Midwest, and Chicago-based wholesale prices have gone insane.  Last Thursday it was $1.49 a gallon.  Right now, $1.85.  I’m pretty sure we are looking at another price hike on Thursday, to the neighborhood of $2.69 in Michigan.  Vernal equinox bleah!!! –Ed A.

Updated: March 18, 2015 — 6:22 pm

78 Comments

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  1. Ren, I’m afraid I was not clear. So let me rephrase.

    In the 90’s I seem to remember there were many periods where gas was fairly inexpensive – around a dollar a gallon (sometimes under, mostly over). I had a ’95 Geo Prism that loved premium unleaded (great mileage). I don’t recall paying more than 1.25-135 very often.

    Price spikes existed back then too (dime Thursdays)

    What I don’t recall happening was the use of every excuse conceivable to manipulate oil prices, either nationally or locally. Hurricanes would come and go, squirrels would come and go, and the lower tech refineries of the time would not choke every other month. The EIA was not trying to explain how event A causes a price hike while the opposite event never caused any issues.

    Granted we did not have ethanol or 100 varieties of gasoline but it seems to me things ran a LOT smoother price wise and supply wise LOCALLY back then.

    The lowest I recall paying was 88c a gallon for a little bit and around 1-120 for a while. But we did not have the volatility we do today.

    Many of my coworkers did not believe that price hikes were happening on purpose every week. I noticed it happening in the late 90’s…

    Again I’m talking local wild fluctuations, not national level price trends. There was plenty of refining capacity and this eventually led to what Senator Wyden of Oregon wrote about in his report about refinery closings.

  2. No, you were clear, and you’re still missing something.

    Adjusting for inflation, your .88 to 1.35 in the 1990s equals a 53% fluctuation range. Compare that to the period from mid-2011 to late 2014, where the average Indiana price always stayed between 3.13 and 4.13 — a mere 32% fluctuation range.

    Now we’ve entered a different period in the last few months. If we apply the 53% fluctuation in your preferred era, and ~1.80 was our bottom earlier this year, that gives an analog range up to 2.75, which we aren’t flirting with yet — but might later this spring.

    Bottom line, there are major adjustments every three years or so (late 2008, mid 2011, late 2014), but the intervening fluctuations really aren’t any worse today than they were in the 1990s.

  3. There were also a lot more refineries during that period also. Many closed during that time period due to not making enough profit and the result is fewer so a problem at a regional refinery now makes a bigger splash. But good luck ever getting a new refinery ever approved again. I do remember the first time gas went above $2 (to $2.15) when the wolverine pipeline sprang a leak and the politicians panicked and suspended the gas tax for a week or two. The beginning of fun things to come!

  4. Ren, while your zeal is commendable, I am going to reiterate that i am talking about 1990’s prices – not today’s, not adjusted for inflation – and furthermore, local prices in a short period of tine. Not years, not nationally.

    National averages by definition fluctuate less. They’re averages. And even those fluctuated less than now. But I’m talking Speedway states, and shorter term.

    I don’t remember having to hunt for gas, or zone pricing, etc. I also don’t remember refinery outages happening.

    Maybe my memory is dropping parity bits.

  5. No, Turbo, you’re not dropping parity bits. I remember it that way also. But as Jrunner said, there were a lot more refineries, small ones, even. Gladieux in Fort Wayne, for example. Things like that helped soften the blow of the hurricanes.

  6. We had a refinery in Hooven,Ohio, not far from where I live now run by Gulf Oil. It became a victim of the merger with Chevron and closed in 1986.

  7. Oh, and I don’t live in the average. I buy below average priced gas, that’s what all of us here try to do. And so when gas spikes, and all stations end up at the same high price, our stations spiked more than the average will show. Sorry folks, my worls, like Turbo’s is not average, my world contributes to the average. There used to be a Hess in Fort Wayne, a Checker, a Buy Lo, Bonded, Gladieux, and a few other deep discounters. So one could find gas at or just under $1.00 easily through most of the early 90’s. Back then, a 5 cent discount was heavenly. Now that they are gone, and Speedway and Marathon are on every corner, some Shell, Philips 66, and with an occasional Costco, Sams, Kroger, most of us are looking to save 8 to 12 cents a gallon. Being priced below average, when they spike too, our price in our world spikes more than the average spikes. Our world vs Average world.

  8. I think the onset of the internet and sites like GasBuddy have made for more price swings. It used to be that the manager of a gas station had to get in their car and drive around town to see what the competitions pricing was. Now they just go online multiple times a day. In our area we will have 3-4 price changes every day as stations match each other or undercut each other’s price. In any given week that adds up to a 25-30 drop in pump price. Unless there is a corresponding drop in wholesale price, that means that every 5-7 days the retailer runs out of profit and a spike is necessary. In the 10 days since the last spike our pump prices have dropped 38 cents a gallon while wholesale costs are down a fraction of that. Therefore another spike will occur in the coming days.

  9. Turbo, I was also talking about 1990s prices, and comparing them to today’s prices — which is exactly what you were doing. I was also using your local numbers for the 1990s, and local numbers at gasbuddy for recent years. And I just proved that they fluctuated MORE (53%) back then than they did in recent years, between the sporadic major adjustments (which we also had back then).

    I think the problem is that you don’t like the results. You’re relying on what things seem like, whereas I’m relying on math.

  10. Timm, in our world, we don’t pay for gas at the spike line. In our world, we save hundreds of dollars specifically BECAUSE of the spike cycle — because you can’t have troughs without peaks.

    As proven mathematically many times here, the spike cycle is a WINNER for smart people like us.

  11. I have never thought that we may not be winners. However, driving past a station today (metaphorically) and seeing $2.49, and yesterday I filled up for $2.12, that is a 37 cent spike for my world (Rounded, 40 cents). My world did not match the average of, say the 22 cents that a GasBuddy chart would show. If on the other hand I purchased my gas at a Shell that almost never dropped it’s price, my world would not see such big spikes.
    We all get tired of the need to play the game. I love winning, but the game is getting old to many of us. I have beenn playing it since the late 1960’s. 45 years is just enough to be old by now. AND I reserve the right to complain and joke tongue in cheek

  12. Turbo- you’re leaving out one major fact, and you might not be recalling correctly, as many people don’t remember gas prices correctly even a few months ago. The “Brian Williams” syndrome. In the 1980’s, there were over 200 refineries. In the early 80’s, there were over 300. In 1993, the year the Clean Air Act was passed, there were 187. Today, there are 142.

    Refinery climate has shifted from more diverse, smaller units, to massive, sprawling refineries that are much more complex, and significantly larger in size. When a refinery in 1982 went down, it’s capacity only averaged 59,470bpd. When a refinery today goes down, it’s average capacity is 126,000bpd, over double the hit. And with larger more complex refineries come more problems. The Nelson complexity index gauges how complex a refinery is. This contributes to more pricing volatility than before, and is not surprising.

  13. I don’t ignore the fact that we have far fewer refineries now as we did in the early 1990’s. That’s where the problem is.

    The issue of why we have fewer refineries now was answered by the Senator Wyden investigation and report. Consolidation and monopolistic practices.

    We surely did not have GasBuddy etc in the early to mid 1990’s, so unless someone shows me local data for indianapolis, weekly, for the period, I will likely rely on my memory and the memory of others.

    Proportionally 10c on the dollar is 30c on three dollars but my memory days we did not have 30 plus spikes a year, nor did we have zone pricing, nor did we have the usual pricing antics of winter and summer gas to the extent we do now, not did we have the endless parade of talking heads explaining prices on TV.

    My non educated guess would be that gasoline is one of very few products where you can make more money by selling less product but at a higher price, therefore removing any incentive to maintain and run the place reliably.

    It really does not matter tho because the issue is consolidation and not reliability. Having a single point of failure often appears to the consumer as a convenient excuse, nothing to see here… Credibility is king.

    I wish I felt more positive about it. With a very decent income and a honda Fit I probably spend more on liquor than I do on gasoline but still… I don’t feel the Speedway model is working – not for my kind of consumer at least.

  14. Like Gladieux Refinery in Fort Wayne, a smalll refinery. They put themselves up for sale because the environmental requirements made it impossible for them to compete with the larger refineries.

    There is no better incentive to get your refinery working than to be down and non-productive while your competition(s) continue to make money. Why do you think that back in the heyday of Detroit the unions would strike at only one of the big three?

    Now days, there is not so much to keep your refinery producing except for public relations. And that, is not as much of an incentive. Especially when they are allowed excuses. A real market with real competition at the refinery level was very unforgiving, $$$$ wise. No what out. PR is the big way out now.

    NOT SAYING this is what they are doing, I don’t know that. But it is one rational conclusion that can explain a lot.

  15. TimmP, they went out of business because they couldn’t afford the massive uptake to meet EPA Clean Air Act Requirements, it wasn’t that they were competing against larger refineries at that point to stay in business, it was costly to upgrade, and larger refineries it was worth meeting those requirements, not only that but larger refiners tend to have deeper pockets.

  16. Exactly, like I said.. “They put themselves up for sale because the environmental requirements made it impossible for them to compete with the larger refineries” The cost would have been too much for them to make a profit.

  17. Then the government, once again, is to blame. But that doesn’t fit the mold of those who have a laser focus on “big oil,” and corporations in general. Ideology all too often trumps common sense.

  18. My knowledge of Gladieux is first and second hand. Their children were in my classroom when I was teaching back then. I knew the father and the kids grandfather.

  19. TimmP, the angle you’re looking at it is not correct. You seemingly place blame on larger refineries “impossible to compete”. It’s not the larger refineries who forced them out of business at all. It was the sheer cost of government regulations. Place blame where it belongs- on the 1993 Clear Air Act. Just like how we see huge gas price spikes in the spring now, because the EPA mandated cleaner gasoline costs more and results in significant logistical challenges every year that cause hot spots. A refinery goes from producing one blend to producing several, and each type of gasoline then has its own fundamentals.

    It is wrong to place any blame on “larger” refineries for the governments actions. It’s not the fault of a large refinery that they were in better position than a smaller one. It’s not the fault of a large refinery that the government passed legislation forcing billions in new emissions controls.

    Enough of this self serving pity party. We’re here to learn with facts, and you mis-represent that. Just like those who believe and spread the myth that gas prices go up just for holidays.

  20. Ren, if you have weekly price data – better yet daily – for Indiana going back to the early 1990’s I would love to see them.

    Also percentage hikes are meaningless to most consumers when gas was a dollar a gallon.

    As for refineries closing, look up Senator Wyden’s report to Congress. If you think creating shortages intentionally with the specific purpose of raking money in is fantasy, companies like Enron beg to differ.

    http://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/public_comments/prohibitions-market-manipulation-and-false-information-subtitle-b-energy-independence-and-security/535819-00098.pdf

    I don’t disagree that regulations have contributed to the refinery “shortage” but there are lots of other reasons as well I would think.

  21. I used your own number range, Turbo. Are you saying your numbers are unreliable?

  22. Patrick: Please re-read! YOU didn’t catch my meaning. When I say “They put themselves up for sale because the environmental requirements made it impossible for them to compete with the larger refineries” I am saying that larger refineries, like all larger corporations, have the resources to meet the regulations and requirements, Meeting the requirememts legally, EPA, Govt, etc, is always easier for large corporations that have entire floors of people dedicated to meeting the new requirements, and able to spread the cost over a larger customer base. I NEVER SAID it was the larger refineries fault. Ther are just better able to compete in a highly regulated industry. I DO blame a highly regulated business environment that disproportionately burdens the smaller companies. Thus eliminating some of competition ina any given market. If you still don’t understand, sorry.

  23. I was not really concerned about the spike magnitude. I already pointed out that back then, 10c on a dollar gas is the same percentage as 30c on three dollar gas… Not that people would notice a dime on already cheap gas versus 30c on already pricy gas… It’s more about how often spikes happened, or other methods used to maximize revenue at our expense 🙂

    I seem to recall fewer spikes, period. Not the 30+ we have every year now. I seem to recall we did not have zone pricing the way we do now. I think while we had winter and summer gas formulas, we did not have the obligatory beginning of year serious hikes with the excuse being “switch from XX to YY gas”. Refinery incidents did not seem to happen very often and if they did, they did not have major impact.

    With gas being so low, we also did not have the usual talking heads from the EIA etc explaining what was going on.

    Overall prices seemed remarkably stable. Incidentally, here are weekly average prices for the period: http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?f=W&n=PET&s=EMM_EPMR_PTE_NUS_DPG

    We even had Gulf War 1 and nobody really noticed… From the data price went up 15-20c for a few months (a sizable amount percentage wise but a pittance in absolute dollars) and once that was done in early 1991, back to 1.10 or so 🙂

    Can anyone imagine what would happen to the price of crude today if Gulf War 3 occurred?

    That’s the kind of difference between the energy markets of 1990-2000 versus 2000-2008 versus 2008-present.

    But in retrospect, the refinery end game was predictable. I remember the refinery in NW Indianapolis, I used to drive by there often on the way to a pioneering mail order PC store (MicroXpress if anyone remembers, Park 100 northwest Indianapolis). The first time I saw the refinery it was like “who put a refinery here”… it was not a big one certainly. Marathon bought it in 1989, paid a hefty fine a year or two later, and shuttered it in 1993. Makes one wonder why would they do such a thing…

  24. You say this as if the stability of the ’90s used to be the rule, and the 2000s are the exception. But go back farther (and use the orange line to be more accurate):

    http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/NA-CE158_NUMGUY_11U_20150102113014.jpg

    Instability in the world causes instability at the pump. The late 1970s/early 1980s were just as volatile as the post-9/11-Katrina era. Not that there was NO instability 1986-2000, but it certainly wasn’t as volatile overall. Even still, the 1991 Gulf War did register on that chart, but it was such a quick rout that it didn’t really have time to create a lasting effect at the pump.

  25. I realize that… I’m thankful I lived thru the 1990’s spending $12 to fill a Geo Prizm back then for the week. But I’m talking more refining and distribution, not crude. Just like we used to fly to NYC for $59 via People’s Express I suppose.

    The bottom line is that there seems to have been a huge paradigm shift in terms of how gasoline is refined and distributed, and it hasn’t all been for the consumer’s benefit.

    I wish I was an economist with a lot of free time to calculate what would have happened if gasoline was 1.50-2.00 thru the 1990’s… Maybe people would be buying sensible vehicles and building sensible homes and cities. Instead we saved for a decade and paid the piper from 2002 on.

    It’s been an interesting thread.

  26. I wasn’t talking about crude either. Those were gas prices.

    And you’re still not adjusting for inflation. Not that it has to be calculated every time somebody talks about past prices, but the notion at least has to be kept in mind.

    It’s so difficult having conversations here sometime.

  27. Given that this discussion is about the ‘good old times’ inflation is not an issue for me. I’m making around 4x what I made 30 years ago, so it’s only natural that $1 gas in ’85 should be $4 today… NOT.

    The Turbo of 1985 did not have kids in college, property taxes, a mortgage, and retirement to think about. He drove a sporty 1985 Honda Civic 1500S, rented a 2 bedroom apartment, and was happy with a dial up modem and $20/month cable TV. Gas prices were on nobody’s radar back then. Remember what I said about not having EIA talking heads explaining Saddam away.

  28. $4 today? Who the heck is paying $4 today?

    Nobody. Only CA and HI are paying $3.

    And that’s yet another problem with your schtick: constant exaggeration and hyperbole.

    Inflation MUST BE CONSIDERED when comparing yesterday to today. There’s no way around that. And you CANNOT be a legitimate contributing factor to message boards like that until you accept it.

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