-- Whether it's $50 to fill up your Prius or $130 for the Ford Expedition, $4-a-gallon gasoline is coming to a pump near you.
Fuel prices are rising at a pace not seen since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked out a third of the U.S. oil refining industry in 2005. Gasoline consumption is climbing twice as fast as last year and will accelerate when summer travel begins late next month.
Population gains and U.S. economic growth are causing an increase in fuel purchases, according to Orlando, Florida-based AAA, the nation's largest organization for motorists.
Gasoline use is rising almost 5 percent above the five-year average.
Americans are resigned to higher prices, says David Pursell, a principal with Pickering Energy Partners, a consulting firm in Houston.
``Last year, we had pump prices well over $3 for the summer and gasoline demand was up,'' Pursell said in an interview. ``Would $4 gasoline cause demand contraction? I think it will, but I also thought $3 gasoline would.''
Gasoline inventories, measured by the days of demand they will cover, are at the lowest level in two decades for this time of year because of refinery fires, power failures and maintenance work oil companies failed to complete in 2006. No new U.S. refinery has been built in three decades, increasing the strain on existing plants.
Pump prices in the U.S. may increase to $4 a gallon from a nationwide average of $2.87 today, especially if hurricanes threaten Gulf of Mexico refineries, says Peter Beutel, an analyst at Cameron Hanover Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, who helps industrial consumers manage energy costs.
``Hurricanes are always the huge wild card,'' said Beutel. ``We're all praying for a year like 2006 rather than 2005.''
The June-to-November Atlantic Ocean hurricane season may produce 17 tropical storms, with nine reaching hurricane force and four becoming major hurricanes whose winds exceed 111 miles per hour (179 kilometers per hour), London-based forecasters at Tropical Storm Risk said. Some of the storms will strike the Gulf Coast this year after a benign 2006.