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Utah gas hits all-time high

But $2.33 isn’t the worst - 31 states report even higher prices

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Nope, you weren't imagining things. Gas prices indeed reached an all-time high on Wednesday, according to AAA Utah.

The statewide average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline hit $2.33, AAA reported. Premium-grade gas hit an average per-gallon price of $2.57.

"Statewide average gas prices are up 53 cents since the start of the year," Rolayne Fairclough, AAA Utah spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. "That means the cost of filling up an average sedan has gone up more than $8 — more if you drive a minivan or an SUV."

But Utahns aren't alone. Across the nation, AAA reported record prices. The national average price for regular unleaded gasoline climbed to an all-time high of $2.38 per gallon, up 57 cents from mid-January. The highest gas prices were reported in California, at $2.68 per gallon. In all, AAA said 31 states reported higher gas prices than were found in Utah.

Several factors played a role in this week's price hike, AAA said.

"The price of crude oil has nearly tripled in the last three years. Energy traders seem to be concerned about possible supply disruptions due to Iran's policy on the development of nuclear weapons and terrorist threats in Saudi Arabia," the organization stated. "Retail prices are also being propelled higher by reports of refinery problems in the United States. Collectively, these disruptions may be affecting as much as three percent of domestic gasoline production."

AAA warned that average wholesale gasoline prices are also rising, and that prices at the pump may continue to rise in the coming days.

Oil prices zoomed higher Wednesday, touching a new high of $65 a barrel, with buyers focused on refinery snags, shrinking U.S. inventories of gasoline and motorists' growing thirst for fuel despite record-high costs.

The latest rally — crude futures have risen 14 percent in three weeks — highlights just how nervous the market has become to output threats. It doesn't seem to matter, analysts said, that the country has enough fuel in inventory to offset routine supply disruptions.

The heightened sensitivity comes amid strong demand in the United States and China, the world's top consuming nations, where high prices have tempered rising fuel consumption only slightly.

"People talked about $60 crude slowing economies around the world. But here in the U.S., (Federal Reserve Chairman) Alan Greenspan is telling us the economy is doing great and getting stronger," said James Cordier, president of Liberty Trading Group in Tampa, Fla. "It bodes well for crude testing the $70 range."

Cordier said prices at the pump may continue climbing "until consumers are crying 'uncle,' which they're not."

Light sweet crude for September delivery climbed as high as $65 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract settled $1.83 higher at $64.90 a barrel, the highest level since Nymex trading began in 1983.

While oil prices are about 40 percent higher than a year ago, they would need to surpass $90 a barrel to exceed the inflation-adjusted peak set in 1980. That — and the fact that the U.S. economy burns fuel much more efficiently than it did 25 years ago — helps explain why the country's financial engine is still going strong, analysts said.

Energy markets have been extremely jumpy about a spate of refinery outages in recent weeks. Some traders said the recent U.S refinery troubles — the latest reported by BP PLC on Wednesday — is evidence the industry and its aging infrastructure are having difficulty maintaining output at high levels.

But analysts and industry officials said refinery snags are not out of the ordinary for this time of year, when plants run hard to meet peak gasoline demand.

"Hiccups are an unfortunate reality of operating refineries," said Bryan Caviness, who follows the industry for Fitch Ratings in Chicago. "There have not been any more than what you typically see, but the impact (on prices) has certainly been greater than what you've seen in years past."

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com