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Why Is Gas More Expensive in the Summer Than in the Winter?

By: Jacob Silverman  | 

gas
For the first time ever, largely due to soaring inflation and the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine, among other causes, gas prices in California surpassed $6 per gallon, as seen here in Petaluma, May 18, 2022. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Unfortunately for drivers, gas prices often go up during the summer, starting around Memorial Day.

In May 2022, U.S. consumers are paying an average of $1.50 per gallon more than they were at the same time in 2021, according to AAA. The reasons are many and varied, but two causes are soaring inflation and the fact that many countries, including the U.S., have cut off oil imports from Russia, one of the world's top oil producers, due to the war in Ukraine. This volatility has shaken up the crude oil markets and continues to push prices higher.

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But fuel prices typically increase every summer, and some of the reasons are fairly logical. More people traveling, especially on family vacations and road trips, increases demand. Also, in the spring months, energy companies conduct maintenance on their refineries, shutting them down and limiting capacity until late May.

Because of these disruptions, oil supplies can become stretched. In addition, natural disasters, like hurricanes, can increase prices by disrupting transport routes and damaging refineries and other infrastructure.

But did you know that the gasoline sold during the summer is actually different — and more expensive to produce — than that sold in the winter? In this article, we'll take a look at why summer fuel prices are higher, focusing on the annual shift from winter-grade fuel to summer-grade fuel.

Twice every year in the United States, the fuel supply changes. It's known as the seasonal gasoline transition. This change is the biggest reason for the price hike in summer gasoline. Depending on the time of year, gas stations switch between providing summer-grade fuel and winter-grade fuel.

The switch started in 1995 as part of the Reformulated Gasoline Program (RFG), which was established through the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started the RFG program in order to reduce pollution and smog during the summer ozone season, which occurs from June 1 to Sept. 15 [source: EPA].

In order to reduce pollution, summer-blend fuels use different oxygenates, or fuel additives. These blends, the EPA says, burn cleaner and also help compensate for a limited oil supply. This practice of using seasonal blends also encourages the development of alternative fuels. (Remember that gasoline isn't just made up of processed crude oil; it's a blend of refined crude oil and different compounds and additives.)

So what's the difference between summer-grade fuel and winter-grade fuel? Summer-grade fuel burns cleaner than winter-grade fuel. This just means that it produces less smog and releases less toxic air pollutants, which we'll talk about later. The actual difference in cost of production varies and it can add between 5 and 15 cents per gallon to the cost of your fill-up, depending on the U.S. region [source: Gas Buddy]. No matter the difference in production costs, the increase at the pump is even greater, owing to the summer driving season, dips in supply, maintenance costs and companies' converting to production of summer blends.

On the next page, we'll take a look at why summer-grade fuels are more environmentally friendly and when exactly the shift between summer and winter fuels occurs.

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