After sending consumers into sticker shock the past month, how much more can gasoline prices climb?
Another 20 to 50 cents a gallon - a level that could propel the cost of gasoline, now $3.75 a gallon, to all-time highs, some experts say.
Gasoline prices typically climb from February to Memorial Day on expectations of rising consumption and costlier summer-blend gas. But so far this year, prices are surging sooner and faster than ever before - up 45 cents since mid-January.
MAP: States with the highest gas prices
Consumers in some metropolitan areas, such as Southern California, are already paying nearly $5.20 a gallon, up more than 75 cents since December lows.
"The gas petro-noia season moved up this year,'' says analyst Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. "A lot of speculators bet on higher prices beginning earlier in the year."
Kloza and other longtime industry observers are sticking to forecasts that prices will peak at about $3.95 by early April. But others say prices will eclipse July 2008's record $4.11.
"Lots of people are panicking, but there is room to go higher,'' says Atlas Commodities oil broker Carl Larry, who expects $4.10 to $4.25 a gallon gasoline.
Larry's rationale? The sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment rate has done little to curb consumer demand. If either gains momentum, prices will rise. Moreover, political unrest in the oil-rich Middle East, refinery woes or prolonged natural disasters could cause additional spikes to crude oil and wholesale gas prices. "A lot could happen to make prices go up,'' he says. "I don't see a lot to push prices down."
Kloza, however, says consumers have balked at $4-a-gallon gas in the past and are likely to cut back as prices approach those levels.
"Crude oil is now about $96 a barrel. It was at $145 when gasoline prices hit the $4.11 record," says Kloza, who expects the recent run-up to lose steam.
"Whatever you pay on St. Patrick's Day will be considerably more than you'll pay on July 4th or Labor Day," Kloza says.
Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil rose 80 cents to $96.66 a barrel Tuesday, but gasoline futures eased 1.7 cents from a four-month high to $3.12 a gallon.
Crude has yet to test January's seven-month peak of $98.25 a barrel, notes Brian Milne of energy tracker Telvent DTN.
"Based on what we've seen up to this point this year, I definitely see more upside, but it will be difficult to puncture through $4 a gallon and stay above it,'' says Milne, who expects recent price jumps to slow to 5 cents a gallon a week over the next month.
Prices are expected to remain highest in California, the Midwest and Northeast, Kloza says. California currently averages $4.17 a gallon, highest in the continental U.S. Lowest: Wyoming and Montana, averaging $3.19.