Californians heading to the pump today were met with an unhappy milestone: the second day in a row of record-breaking high prices. With costs at an all-time high and the holidays just around the corner, family travel plans may be in jeopardy and the cost of driving to work could become a problem for many. So what’s going on? Why are prices surging, and when will it end? 

The End is in Sight?

Joe Biden Debate

UPDATE 11/23/21

President Joe Biden has announced that the US will be releasing barrels of oil from the country’s strategic stockpile. This move is a desperate effort to offset the rising prices in recent months and offer some relief as the start of the holiday season is just days away. CBS reports via MSN, “The Department of Energy will release 50 million barrels of oil from the SPR, of which 32 million will be an exchange of oil that will be returned in the years ahead, and 18 million will be the acceleration of a sale of oil previously authorized by Congress.

The move is part of a coordinated effort with major energy-consuming nations including China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom to release reserves of crude oil. The White House said the agreement is the culmination of weeks of talks with other nations as part of Mr. Biden’s efforts to address the lack of oil supply stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The White House is concerned that oil execs are sitting on a mountain of cash as the average driver suffers every time they visit a pump. The oil industry is seeing record profits, leading many to cry foul and suggest they are price gouging. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says per CBS, “We have been having conversations with a range of countries about the importance of, of making sure that the supply out there meets the demands and helps meet, prevent an imperiling of the global economic recovery.”

According to experts, the SPR – which is a stockpile stored along the Gulf Coast – is meant to be used in the wake of natural disasters and in a situation where the oil supply is disrupted. It’s never been used in an attempt to bring down oil prices before and the long-term effects are unknown. However, it will be welcome news for drivers who were starting to worry about the cost of the Christmas road trip.  

Record-Breaking Gas Prices

Gas

California is the unwilling recipient of an honor this week: highest gas prices in the country. Across the state, residents are disgruntled to find the average costs are a whopping 4.658 a gallon for regular unleaded. In Humboldt County, prices are almost at $5 per gallon, ringing in at around $4.971. In the Bay Area, prices are over $4.85.

It’s a distressing juxtaposition to the arrival of the holiday travel season. With Thanksgiving just over a week away, people are getting nervous about the high prices. But it’s not just fun jaunts to the family farm that have people worried – the cost of getting to work is higher than ever now too. Although many jobs are still remote from the pandemic, enough have returned to brick-and-mortar that the high cost of prices at the pump reach far beyond the wallet. Some people are having to rethink the way they commute, per CBSLA via MSN, “The L.A. County average gas price is $1.52 higher than one year ago.

‘I ride my motorcycle a lot more,’ one man told CBSLA Monday. ‘I have a one-ton diesel truck that just sits at the side of the house, can’t afford to fill it up. I have to get something smaller and more practical.’”

Why the High Costs?

So what’s driving the pain at the pump? As always, it’s a supply and demand issue. Now that people are returning to their daily commute and the holiday is approaching, demand i higher than it’s been in nearly two years. But oil suppliers are not increasing supply – either because they can’t or don’t want to. Limited supply means more money per barrel, with some Wall Street bank experts warning we could see $100 or $120 oil soon. 

Storm activity in California has also slowed domestic production and distribution, an issue which hopefully should resolve soon, easing some of the price pain. Doug Shupe, spokesperson for AAA, told ABC7 that a change in travel habits hasn’t been met by a change in production, “‘Typically we see prices at the pump fall off after Labor Day because people have completed their summer vacations. Kids are back in school,’ Shupe said. ‘But this year people are still traveling. There’s still that demand for fuel to get to where people want to go.’

Gas prices have been increasing steadily throughout the year as fuel demand grows around the globe and suppliers have been unable – or unwilling – to produce more oil. Although US oil prices have surged by more than 65% this year, US oil production is about 14% below the levels of the end of 2019, before Covid erupted.”

If production doesn’t increase soon, President Joe Biden could dip into the nation’s stockpile to ease supply issues – but so far, he has hesitated to do so, hoping the system balances itself out soon. 

Pandemic Delays Driving Holiday Costs Way, Way Up

Gas

It’s not just gas being crunched between supply and demand this year. Experts have been warning for weeks that people should get their Christmas shopping done early. The US Postal Service has slowed to a crawl, and stores are having trouble getting shipments of products across a variety of industries due to bottlenecks at shipping ports and a shortage of delivery drivers.

Amazon Prime saw a slow-down of shipping speeds for some customers around Halloween as people tried to order their costume items, but that slow-down has since eased for many. However, it’s expected to get worse as Christmas orders start rolling in. The solution? While many say, “shop local,” there are problems with that as well. Local stores still need deliveries to fill their shelves – a problem which is far-reaching whether you’re a big box chain or a ma and pa store. 

So the solution may be for people to get creative. Thrift stores are full of barely-used items impulsively bought during lockdown which are now filling the shelves faster than people are buying. While shopping local is a good partial solution, a supplemental idea would be to craft your own presents. If kid presents are on back-order or slow to ship, consider swapping toys with friends whose young kids may not care about second hand toys. 

Like everything with the pandemic, this year’s holiday season may require a little thinking outside the box. So if you’re worried that Christmas is approaching – just 40 days now – and you don’t think presents will arrive in time, there are still ways to fill out that Christmas tree.