In one California town, police have arrested a man who allegedy stole more than 1,100 gallons of gas from a nearby Shell station. In another city, several gas stations posted cardboard signs by their idle pumps. "Closed."

Similar portraits of desperation emerged across the state Monday as Californians grappled with sky-high gas prices, gas shortages and rations.

California Gov. Jerry Brown directed state agencies to speed their switch to a more-available winter blend of gas that wasn't due to take place until Oct. 31. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the spike in prices, which reached an average of $4.66 per gallon of regular, the highest in the country.

One gas station in Long Beach, Calif., advertised regular for $6.65 per gallon, according to GasBuddy.com, the priciest in the state. One GasBuddy.com analyst predicted average prices could rise as high as $4.85 per gallon in California before peaking.

So far, the problems that caused California's spike are isolated in the Golden State, where prices have increased 55 cents per gallon since averaging $4.11 on Sept. 28. By comparison, the national average has increased from $3.79 to $3.80 in the same span.

But the prices seen in California could spread nationally in the next couple of years through a few scenarios. When economies heat up an demand for gasoline goes up, so do prices. Oil prices have been hovering around $100 a barrel even though the U.S. economy is sluggish and Europe's is in the tank. Analysts warn that when the U.S. and Europe are recovering together at a higher rate of growth, combined with rising demand in China, oil and gasoline prices will climb in tandem.

Perfect Storm

In California, experts blame a collision of several factors for California's gas-price spike. ExxonMobil and Tesoro had shut down refineries for scheduled maintenance and Chevron had shut one down due to an August fire. A pipeline feeding the San Francisco market was also shut down because of suspected contamination.

"We're obviously extremely disheartened that we are unable to do this, and we're pulling fuel from all corners of California to fix this," Jeff Cole, Costco's vice president of gasoline told Bloomberg Businessweek, about the chain's shuttered pumps. This, "feels like a hurricane to me, but it's the West Coast."

The fact gas prices and energy policy in general have been hot-button political issues this election season has only sharpened the scrutiny on the behind-the-pump forces at play in California.

In a letter of chairman Jon Leibowitz, Feinstein wrote the FTC has "failed to take action to protect California consumers from malicious trading schemes in the California gasoline market."