NEW YORK - U.S. retail gasoline prices rose to their highest level on record Tuesday, spelling pain at the pumps for the nation's 200 million motorists, the American Automobile Association said on Tuesday.
The average price for regular gasoline struck $1.738 per gallon, up a tenth of a cent from the previous record hit in late summer 2003, according to the motorist group's survey of more than 60,000 stations.
While an all-time high in nominal terms, the current price of gasoline is still significantly lower than the inflation adjusted peak of $2.94 hit in 1981, and well below the prices seen regularly in European countries.
"Economists may find it helpful to discuss inflation adjustment, but a big increase in the monthly gasoline bill is a large burden to this country's families and businesses regardless," said AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom.
Energy prices have been on the rise in recent months due to paper-thin U.S. stockpiles lingering near their lowest levels since the 1970s and economic growth that has spurred higher global fuel demand.
Oil producer group OPEC, which controls roughly half of the world's exported crude, is also mulling a new reduction in supplies starting April 1, adding to a series of cuts that recently brought oil prices to nearly $40 a barrel.
"The role of OPEC in these high prices is substantial this year," AAA's Sundstrom said.
The U.S. government on Monday predicted prices would average a record $1.83 per gallon in April and May during the run-up to the summer driving season when Americans typically take to the roads.
Energy Information Administration chief Guy Caruso said at an oil industry meeting in San Antonio on Monday that he was "really concerned" about thin U.S. gasoline inventories, which are running about 13 million barrels lower than the agency had projected.
The volatile gasoline landscape has drawn the attention of lawmakers from both political parties, making it a likely issue in this presidential election year.
Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on Monday reintroduced a bill requiring the Federal Trade Commission to act on what he called anti-competitive industry pricing policies.
The FTC earlier this month opened an informal probe into California's retail gasoline prices -- the highest in the nation -- at the urging of Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
Oil and gas refiners have denied using any anti-competitive practices, instead blaming high prices on tight supplies caused by dozens of different gasoline-blending rules for metropolitan areas and the lack of enough imports of the motor fuel.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said soaring gasoline prices are a good reason for the Senate to pass a stalled energy bill.
AAA added in its release that state and federal government officials need to take another look at policies that have resulted in more than 15 different varieties of gasoline being used across the United States each summer.
"While these 'boutique' fuels have helped clean the air, they also have seriously hampered the efficient production and distribution of gasoline," AAA said.
AAA is the largest motorist and travel group in the United States, with about 47 million members.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd