By Thomas C. Hayes DALLAS - Gasoline prices are likely to rise by 10 cents to 15 cents a gallon at the pump by the middle of May, to an average of $1.20 to $1.25 a gallon, according to several energy analysts.
The nation's gasoline stocks have fallen to the lowest level in 16 years, and gasoline imports this month remain below normal levels with the summer driving season approaching. As a result, nervous traders have added 8 cents this month to the price of gasoline for May delivery.
Prices that service stations pay for wholesale gasoline lag behind developments on the commodity futures exchanges by a few weeks, but they have begun to reflect the rising costs.
Many analysts said the futures prices should continue rising until increases in gasoline production and imports halt the declines in gasoline supplies at refineries, pipelines and storage terminals.
``If there is any supply problem between now and the summer driving season, it will not be reflected as a shortage at the gasoline pump, but in much higher prices,'' said Edwin S. Rothschild, energy policy director for Citizen Action, a national consumer research organization in Washington.
The lowest average price this year for unleaded regular gasoline at self-service pumps was $1.08 a gallon on March 5, according to the American Automobile Association. The price rose slightly in each of the last three weeks, to an average of $1.10 on Tuesday.
The high mark during the Persian Gulf crisis came on Dec. 4 at $1.39 a gallon. But with crude oil prices ranging between $18 and $21 a barrel after allied bombing raids began Jan. 17, far below the peak of $40 last October, and with demand down amid recession, gasoline prices drifted lower.
Indeed, with the effects of inflation removed, they are at the lowest level in more than 50 years.
Refiners said they had slashed output because of the pinch on profit margins this year. Gasoline stocks last week were the lowest in 16 years, at 204 million barrels, or just under the minimum of 205 million barrels recommended by the National Petroleum Council, a group of industry executives that advises the Government on energy issues.
The American Petroleum Institute said this week that the decline in gasoline inventories was primarily because oil companies are selling off stocks of certain types of gasoline that cannot be sold during the warmer months, beginning May 1, because of tighter environmental standards aimed at controlling summertime air pollution.
The institute said supplies would be adequate during the summer barring ``unforeseen events.''
Officials of the Energy Information Administration said at a news conference Thursday in Washington that refinery output and gasoline imports would increase soon, and that adequate supplies would be available through the summer.
Some industry experts agree. Kenneth D. Miller, senior principal at Purvin & Gertz, energy consultants in Houston, said operating rates at American refineries, now 82 percent of capacity, should rise to 88 percent within several weeks.
Last summer when profit margins were high, refiners operated at almost 93 percent of capacity.
``There is plenty of capacity in the United States to produce the amount of gasoline that's needed,'' Miller said.
Profit margins slipped below 15 cents a gallon for wholesale gasoline last January, he said, leading refiners to cut output. …