You may pay more than ever for a late-summer drive.
U.S. drivers paid an average of $3.72 per gallon on Monday. That's the highest price ever on this date, according to auto club AAA, a shade above the $3.717 average on Aug. 20, 2008. A year ago, the average was $3.578.
More daily records are likely over the next few weeks. The national average could increase to $3.75 per gallon by Labor Day, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. By comparison, gas prices stayed below $3.70 in late August and early September in both 2008 and 2011.
Retail gasoline prices have gone up about 39 cents per gallon, or 12 percent, since hitting a low of $3.326 on July 2, according to AAA, OPIS and Wright Express. Kloza estimates that U.S. drivers are paying $149 million more each day for gas than in early July. That isn't what the sluggish economy needs, since any extra money that goes to fill gas tanks doesn't get spent at movie theaters or restaurants.
The price at the pump in the U.S. fell more than 60 cents per gallon during the spring when oil fell as the global economy slowed and turmoil in the Middle East seemed to subside.
But oil has risen to $96 per barrel from $78 in late June. Investors have been worried about disruption to oil supplies in the Middle East and North Sea. In the U.S., there were problems with refineries and pipelines in the West Coast and Midwest, including a fire in California. Seasonal factors are also at play: Summer blends of gas cost more and demand goes up as families go on vacation.
Analysts expect prices to drop after Labor Day, so at least drivers shouldn't have to worry about a return to the April high of $3.94 per gallon, barring a hurricane or other unforeseen event.
Still, commuters and vacationers are frustrated, said Michael Green, spokesman for AAA. It's tougher to budget a summer trip and discouraging to see a larger chunk of one's pay check going toward gas costs. As for a post-Labor Day drop, he said in an emailed statement that, "It would take a significant decline in the price of gasoline for most Americans to feel comfortable with what they pay at the pump."
Still, that frustration shouldn't stop people from hitting the road said Brooke Ferencsik, director of communications at TripAdvisor. He said a majority of travelers recently surveyed by the travel advice site indicated they'll stick to fall travel plans even if they pay more for gas.
Whether pump prices impact the presidential election remains to be seen. But the Obama administration appears to be concerned. A senior administration official told The Associated Press Friday that the U.S. is considering a release of oil from the country's strategic reserves. It will monitor gas prices to see whether they fall before making a decision.
Across the U.S., prices range from a low of $3.43 per gallon in South Carolina to $4.32 in Hawaii. Arizona, Mississippi and New Mexico also have average prices below $3.50 per gallon, while California and Illinois are up above the $4 mark.
A few drivers are catching a break. Kloza said gas prices are lower than this date in 2011 in four states — Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho. And drivers who recently purchased a new car can stretch a gallon a bit further. The average fuel economy of new light vehicles in the U.S. in July was 23.6 mpg, up from 20.5 mpg at the end of 2008.
Gas hit an all-time high of $4.11 per gallon in July 2008. But a plunge in oil prices knocked it down to $3.69 by the end of August. Though the national average jumped back to $3.85 in mid-September when Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, it plummeted to $1.62 per gallon by year-end as the global recession took hold.
On Monday, oil fell slightly in New York trading after four days of gains on more concerns about Europe's economy. European leaders are beginning a series of discussions that could determine Greece's future and the stability of the 17 countries that use the euro.
Benchmark oil dropped 4 cents to $95.97 per barrel in New York. Brent crude, which is used to price international varieties of oil, slipped a penny to $113.70 per barrel in London.
Other futures prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange:
— Heating oil was flat at $3.09 per gallon.
— Wholesale gasoline rose less than a penny to $3.03 per gallon.
— Natural gas rose 5.7 cents to $2.776 per 1,000 cubic feet.
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