it is unclear what impact Japan's tsunami and nuclear crisis will have on the prices American motorists pay for gasoline, but it could be slight, a U.S. Energy Department official said Thursday.
Richard Newell, who oversees the agency's data collection, said the disaster will likely cut Japan's demand for fuel in the short term because its economy has been slowed. But as the country rebuilds and business activity resumes, it will turn to other fuel sources to compensate for power lost from its crippled nuclear plants, including possibly oil, he said.
Even so, past nuclear plant outages in Japan have increased its use of oil by 200,000 barrels a day compared to worldwide oil use of 88 million barrels daily, he said.
"I think in the global scheme of things, it will probably be a small impact," Newell told reporters during a break in a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee.
Newell told lawmakers that other factors affect world oil prices, such as recent instability in North African oil producing nations. He noted that oil prices had fallen slightly on Wednesday but were rising again on Thursday.
The per barrel price fell below $100 on Wednesday but was back over that mark early Thursday.
The last forecast by the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration, issued earlier this month, is for U.S. gasoline prices to average $3.56 per gallon this year, up 77 cents from last year's average. It expects gasoline prices to peak during the summer driving season at a U.S. average of $3.70 per gallon.