U.S. gasoline deliveries, a measure of demand, rose 3% in March from a year ago, to 9 million barrels a day, despite higher prices, the American Petroleum Institute said Friday.
John Felmy, chief economist of the industry trade group, said in a statement accompanying the data that "the rise in gasoline demand occurred in spite of higher gasoline prices, which actually pushed down demand for reformulated gasoline used in urban areas and encouraged more use of public transit."
Despite the reported higher gasoline demand, the API said total U.S. oil demand dropped 1.3% from a year ago, to 18.99 million barrels a day, on declines in jet fuel and residual fuel use. Demand for ultra-low sulfur fuel oil, used by trucks and trains, rose 5.5% from a year ago, pushing total distillate fuel use up 0.1% to 3.995 million barrels a day, the API said.
In the first quarter, gasoline demand rose 0.4%, to 8.638 million barrels a day, while distillate demand [diesel and heating oil] dropped 1.2%. Total first-quarter demand fell by 2.7% from a year ago, the API said, as jet fuel and residual fuel use also dropped.
API's gasoline demand figures are in sharp conflict with indications from the federal Energy Information Administration and from SpendingPulse reports released by MasterCard Advisors LLC, a division of MasterCard Inc. (MA).
Both the EIA and API measure implied gasoline demand by tracking volumes of fuel that leave primary storage tanks at terminals and refineries to pass through the supply chain. SpendingPulse figures are based on retail gasoline sales data.
SpendingPulse four-week data for March showed gasoline demand down 5.9% from a year-earlier, while first-quarter gasoline demand was down 5.6%.
"The elevated cost of fuel is the primary reason that year-to-date, gasoline consumption is down 5.6% compared to a similar period last year," SpendingPulse analyst John Gamel said in a statement accompanying the end-March gasoline demand report.
EIA data show the national average retail price of gasoline in March was $3.852 a gallon, up 8.2% from a year earlier, while the first-quarter average price of $3.604 a gallon was 9.6% above a year ago. Retail gasoline prices have averaged at their highest price for each respective month from October 2011 through March, EIA data show.
In its April Short-Term Energy Outlook, the EIA estimated first-quarter U.S. gasoline demand fell 2.8% from a year ago to 8.36 million barrels a day. EIA's latest revised monthly data, for January, showed gasoline use fell by 2.7% from a year earlier, to 8.187 million barrels a day. That compares with API's report that demand fell in January from a year earlier, by 0.2%, to 8.4 million barrels a day.
Jeff Lenard, vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, said he has heard mixed reports from membership about the state of U.S. gasoline demand. Convenience stores account for about 80% of U.S. fuel sales.
"Some retailers we spoke to said that they have seen an increase," Lenard said. "But that may be more related to competition. Consumers are going where the 'deals' are."
"The biggest determinant on sales at a convenience store is the weather, and the weather has been terrific across most of the country," he said. "That means people stay out more and come in stores more, especially for drinks. But does that mean they also drive more and the nice weather is masking a demand drop that might otherwise be even greater?"
-By David Bird, Dow Jones Newswires, 1-212-416-2141; email@example.com