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US drivers spend record amount on gasoline in 2011

By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — American drivers this week broke a record that will bring them no joy.

They collectively spent more than $448 billion on gasoline since the beginning of the year, according to the Oil Price Information Service, putting the previous record for gas expenditures — set in 2008 — in the rearview mirror with weeks of driving still to go.

It’s also a huge jump over last year, when U.S. drivers spent more than $100 billion less on gas.

The major reason for the record-setting gas spending in 2011 was that oil prices were consistently high all year. And that probably brought joy at the other end of the pipeline. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is on pace to top $1 trillion in net oil exports for the first time, or 29 percent more than last year.

Next week, OPEC convenes to discuss production levels. Analysts held out little hope that the group, which pumps 40 percent of the world’s oil, would raise output to lower prices and boost the economic recovery in the U.S. and Europe.

“They won’t do anything,” said Fadel Gheit, senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer and Co. “They can lay the blame on the banking sectors and debt, and they are happy to keep providing oil at what are record prices for this time of the year.”

On Friday, crude oil for January delivery gained $1.07 to close at $99.41 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. NYMEX oil prices are up 8.8 percent so far for the year.

At the pump, gasoline prices hit a record for this time of year. On Friday, average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.293, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. That’s 28.5 cents a gallon higher than the record for a Dec. 9, set in 2007. It was 31.8 cents higher than last year.

Burbank, Calif., resident Dan Bell, 38, said he recently turned down a higher-paying job because he would have had to spend too much on gasoline to get there.

“I just hate the fact that OPEC is making that much money,” Bell said. “There’s not much we can do. We still have to go to work.”

According to the Energy Department, the demand for vehicle fuel has been about 4 percent lower this year than in 2010. And domestic production of oil is on the rise.

But increasing amounts of oil produced in the U.S. are going to other countries. For the past three weeks, U.S. refineries have had a record high level of fuel exports, averaging about 2,984,000 barrels a day to markets overseas, the Energy Department said.

That was more than 600,000 barrels a day higher than last year and more than twice as much as was exported in 2008.

©2011 the Los Angeles Times

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