HOUSTON — The threat of Hurricane Ike pushed gasoline prices higher Thursday, something Gustav failed to do, as the latest storm pushed toward the mass of petroleum refineries along the Gulf Coast.
Exxon Mobil Corp., Valero Energy Corp., ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil Co. were among the companies halting refinery operations on the Texas coast, primarily in the Houston area.
Refineries along the upper Texas Gulf Coast account for about one-fifth of the nation's refining capacity. Exxon Mobil's refinery in Baytown, outside Houston, is the nation's largest.
Supply concerns sent wholesale gasoline prices soaring Thursday. In particular, the wholesale price for gasoline produced on the Gulf Coast jumped to record levels between $4 and $5 a gallon — a spike some analysts attributed to "panic buying" over Ike's potential to disrupt fuel supplies.
"You've got people who are worried that gasoline supplies are going to go from ample to insufficient," said Ben Brockwell, director of data, pricing and information services for the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.
How much gas prices rise depends largely on how long refineries remain shuttered after the storm passes. The average retail price for regular unleaded gasoline was $3.671 on Thursday, according to the Oil Price Information Service, auto club AAA and Wright Express.
Brockwell said prices could climb sharply in the Gulf Coast region — perhaps by 50 cents a gallon — if wholesale prices remain at inflated levels for a sustained period.