Gasoline and heating oil prices may increase late this month because of a new federal law that requires tankers to carry 10 times the liability insurance they have taken in the past to cover accidents and spills.
No one expects the change to cause lines at the gasoline pumps, but some experts predict that tight supplies could raise the price of gasoline and heating oil by at least a few cents a gallon. The Northeast is particularly vulnerable, because of its heavy dependence on oil for heating in the winter.
No tanker will be able to dock in the United States starting Dec. 28 unless it has demonstrated to the Coast Guard that it has the financial ability to carry hundreds of millions of dollars of liability insurance.
For a typical ship moving oil from the Persian Gulf to the United States, owners estimated that the new requirements would add about $1,000 a day, or 5 percent, to their costs. When that oil enters the American marketplace, oil companies may try to raise prices to recover some of those expenses.
The United States now imports a little more than half its oil, and about 80 percent of that moves by ship.
Each day, 7.5 million barrels of crude oil arrive in the United States, and oil experts say a minimum of 800 tankers are needed to avoid interruptions. Slightly more than half, about 430 tankers, have demonstrated the financial strength needed for the Coast Guard clearance.
Because most of the approved tankers are large ships owned by big oil companies and shipping companies, their total capacity could account for more than half the total oil that is needed.