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Near record high gas prices emptying pockets

April 19, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Many Americans are debating between empty gas tanks and empty pockets as prices at the pump are flirting with record highs.

Some experts predict we could hit $5 per gallon of gas by this summer. This is not good news for drivers who already seem to be at the end of their rope.

The national average price for a gallon of gas is $3.83 and Americans are starting to cut back. In California, where the average price is above $4, drivers are running out of gas in record numbers.

"It's taking a toll on my funds right now, taking almost $200 to fill up. I'm not a six figure person," said Sean Dozier, who ran out of gas.

AAA said calls for emergency gas services are up 13 percent as drivers try to stretch their gas tank that extra mile.

"We try to calm them down and let them know that we know it's tough times and everybody runs out of gas nowadays," said AAA tow truck driver Tim Olemeda.

It's not a shortage that's causing the high prices. OPEC said on Monday there is a glut on the market.

Estimates say it could produce another 200 million barrels a day if needed and U.S. oil refineries are only operating at 81 percent of capacity.

Oil companies are raking in huge profits. Analysts predict first quarter profits are expected to go up 41 percent.

However, many are blaming the sharp rise in prices on the commodity futures market. Two Washington senators say there's not enough policing and blame federal regulators for missing a deadline to implement new rules on excessive oil speculation.

Speculators in the oil futures market bid prices up, betting that things are going to get worse in the Middle East.

"They assess the risk and you pay a premium based upon the risk," said Phil Flynn, an energy analyst with PFGBEST.com.

That risk or "fear premium" is costing drivers about 35 cents extra a gallon and it's going right into the pockets of those speculators.

The national average jumped five cents in the past week and a dollar from a year ago .

Experts are watching for signs these high fuel prices are taking a toll on the U.S. economy.