Once again, speculators behind sharply rising oil and gasoline prices

By:  Kevin G. Hall

U.S. demand for oil and refined products - including gasoline - is down sharply from last year, so much that United States has actually become a net exporter of gasoline, unable to consume all that it makes.

Yet oil and gasoline prices are surging.

On Tuesday, oil rose past $106 a barrel and gasoline averaged $3.57 a gallon - thanks again in no small part to rampant financial speculation on top of fears of supply disruptions.

The ostensible reason for the climb of crude prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where contracts for future delivery of oil are traded, is growing fear of a military confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil passes.

Other factors driving up prices include last month's bankruptcy of Petroplus, a big European refiner, and a recent BP refinery fire in Washington state that's temporarily crimped gasoline supply along the West Coast; gas now costs an average of $4.04 a gallon in California.

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