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$4 a gallon may be coming to a gas station near you

LAWRENCEVILLE - After watching fuel prices jump nearly 40 cents across metro Atlanta the past month, many disgruntled drivers wince when they pull into the gas station.

It's not only a question of how much prices climb week to week. They seem to rise 10 cents overnight.

Unfortunately, says Energy Information Administration spokesman Jonathan Cogan, "more price increases are probably on the way."

An industry rule of thumb is that for every $1 hike in the price of oil per barrel, costs at the pump go up about 21⁄2 cents. Heading into the weekend, crude futures stood at nearly $74 on the New York Mercantile Exchange - or about $21 more than this time last year.

Some analysts say paying more than $4 a gallon is a possibility in coming months.

Why is oil soaring?

"Supply and demand," Cogan said.

Because the United States looks abroad for about 60 percent of its petroleum, what happens to oil supplies in the Middle East and elsewhere hits American consumers at the gas pump.

War in Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambitions, turmoil in Nigeria - where oil production has dropped 500,000 barrels a day - all contribute to the rapid jump in crude prices, Cogan said.

So does decreased capacity at American refineries, which are not running at their peak. Some are just now getting a chance for routine maintenance after putting off the annual repairs for months to keep the gasoline flowing in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

At the same time, global oil demand has cranked up, led by China. But the United States also gobbles up about one-fourth of the world's petroleum.

While the situation may rekindle old images of the 1970s oil crisis, such as long lines at the gas station, it shouldn't, said University of Georgia economist Jeff Humphreys.

"That was not a demand-driven problem, it was a supply problem," he said. "These are what I call good high prices because they're based on demand. The global economy is on a roll. People feel reasonably good about their situation. Salaries are increasing again; many companies are seeing good profits. There's a sense of well-being that simply wasn't there back then."

All that optimism goes out the window, though, if anything disrupts supplies as significantly as the hurricanes did last fall.

People in Gwinnett waited in long lines at the gas station until midnight, fought over dwindling rations of fuel and stayed home from school.

"That worried me then," Humphreys said. "Shortages are the big concern."