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Prices at pump jump early

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Gasoline costs are getting an early start on their annual spring march higher.

The average retail price nationwide rose 13 cents during the past two weeks to $3.42 per gallon, and within a few days it will likely set a record for this time of year.

In the Pittsburgh region, GasBuddy.com on Thursday reported an average gasoline price of $3.62 gallon, up 3 cents from $3.59 on Wednesday and up 11 cents from a week ago. On Tuesday, AAA East Central reported an average price in Western Pennsylvania of $3.557 a gallon, up 5 cents from a week ago.

The culprits: Rising crude oil prices, slowing output at refineries that are undergoing maintenance, and low supplies of gasoline.

These are the kinds of things that push gasoline prices higher every spring after what is normally a lull in gasoline prices in the late fall and early winter. But a heavy schedule of January maintenance at West Coast refineries has led to sharply higher prices there. Low inventories have pushed prices higher in the East.

Rising crude has pushed prices higher throughout the country.

“I'm not surprised at what I'm seeing, but I am surprised it's coming early,” said Tom Kloza, Chief Oil Analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

Hopes of stronger economic growth in the United States and abroad helped push the stock market to a five-year high in January and sent crude prices up. When economies expand, more gasoline, diesel and jet fuel are consumed by shippers and travelers.

Crude oil has risen 14 percent since mid-December, to $97.49 on Thursday. Brent crude, the benchmark used to price oil that most U.S. refineries use to make gasoline, is up 9 percent since then to $115.55

But gasoline wholesale prices are rising even faster. That's the price distributors and service stations pay to buy the gasoline that they then sell to drivers.

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