Gasoline is sold and priced by grade

There are three main grades of gasoline, based on octane levels:

  • Regular
  • Midgrade
  • Premium

The octane level of a fuel refers to its resistance to combustion. A fuel with a higher octane level is less prone to pre-ignition and detonation, also known as engine knocking. Refiners charge more for higher octane, and premium grade gasoline is the most expensive. The price difference between grades of gasoline is typically about 10¢ per gallon.

What are the main components of the retail price of gasoline?

The retail price of gasoline includes four main components:

  • The cost of crude oil
  • Refining costs and profits
  • Distribution and marketing costs and profits
  • Taxes

Retail pump prices reflect these components, as well as the profits (and sometimes losses) of refiners, marketers, distributors, and retail station owners.

What determines the cost of crude oil?

The cost of crude oil is the major contributor to the retail price of gasoline. The cost of crude oil as a share of the retail gasoline price varies over time and also varies among regions of the country. Crude oil prices are determined by both demand and supply. World economic growth is the most significant factor affecting demand. Oil prices often increase in response to disruptions in the international and domestic supply of crude oil. A major factor in oil supply is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which can sometimes exert significant influence on oil prices by setting an upper production limit on its members. OPEC produced about 42% of the world's crude oil from 2000 to 2014. OPEC countries maintain nearly all of the world's spare oil production capacity, and possess almost three fourths of the world's estimated proved crude oil reserves. Increases in U.S. oil production in the past several years have helped reduce upward pressure on oil and gasoline prices.

Taxes add to the price of gasoline

Federal, state, and local government taxes also contribute to the retail price of gasoline. The federal excise tax is currently 18.34¢ per gallon, and there is an additional Leaking Underground Storage Tank fee of 1 cent per gallon. As of July 1, 2015, state taxes on gasoline, including state and local government taxes and fees averaged 26.49¢ per gallon. County and city taxes can have a significant impact on the price of gasoline in some locations.

Refining costs and profits

Refining costs and profits vary seasonally and by region in the United States, partly because of the different gasoline formulations required to reduce air pollution in different parts of the country. The characteristics of the gasoline produced depend on the type of crude oil that is used and the type of processing technology available at the refinery where it is produced. Gasoline prices are also affected by the cost of other ingredients that may be blended into the gasoline, such as ethanol. Increased demand for gasoline in the summer generally results in higher prices.

Distribution and marketing

Distribution, marketing, and retail dealer costs and profits are also included in the retail price of gasoline. Most gasoline is shipped from the refinery first by pipeline to terminals near consuming areas, where it may be blended with other products (such as ethanol) to meet local government and market specifications. Gasoline is then delivered by tanker truck to individual gasoline stations.

Some retail outlets are owned and operated by refiners, while others are independent businesses that purchase gasoline from refiners and marketers for resale to the public. The price at the pump also reflects local market conditions and factors, such as the desirability of the location and the marketing strategy of the owner.

The cost of doing business by individual dealers can vary greatly depending on where the dealer is located. These costs include wages and salaries, benefits, equipment, lease or rent payments, insurance, overhead, and state and local fees. Even retail stations next to each other can have different traffic patterns, rent, and sources of supply that affect their prices. The number and location of local competitors can also affect prices.