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Forecast: Drivers to pay 24 cents more per gallon this summer

Published April 11, 2012 7:39 am
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U.S. drivers will pay an average of 24 cents more per gallon for gasoline this summer travel season than last, the government said Tuesday.

Gasoline will cost an average of $3.95 per gallon from April through September, an increase of 6.3 percent from the same period last year, the Energy Information Administration predicted. The peak should come in May, when gas averages $4.01 per gallon, the agency said.

Gasoline already has jumped by 20 percent this year, to a national average of $3.92 per gallon, according to auto club AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Prices, which are posted on station signs on street corners across America, have both a financial and psychological effect on drivers, experts say. Already, higher prices have led to strong sales of gas-sipping vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, and they've become a major issue in the presidential campaign.

Further price hikes will affect the kind of vacations Americans take, and probably will impact how they feel about the economy. They may even influence how Americans vote in November.

"People are going to notice" if the national average crosses $4, said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at Oil Price Information Service.

Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for AAA Utah, said gasoline prices typically increase in Utah during the summer months, particularly around driving holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

"It is interesting what has been happening with prices locally. We've been seeing very small movements since the end of March, even though in the weeks prior to that, prices seemed to be increasing practically every day," Fairclough said, suggesting there are a lot of factors in play internationally that could have an impact on prices this summer.

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program and concerns about the impact on crude oil supplies seem to be waning, she said. And worries over the demand for oil from some of the booming international economies seems to have faded, Fairclough said. All of that "could help bring down crude oil prices, which could reduce the pressure on gasoline prices."

So far this year, pump prices have risen with the cost of crude oil, which is refined into gasoline and other fuels. Brent crude, which is used to price most of the oil used by U.S. refineries, has jumped by 14 percent this year. Benchmark U.S. crude has increased by 4 percent.

Americans have responded to high prices by using less gasoline. That should continue over the summer, the government says. But energy forecasters still expect households to spend an average of $3,410 for gas this year, up $250 from 2011.

The tourism industry pays close attention to gasoline prices during the summer because they have such a big impact on its bottom line.

Anne Banas, executive editor of the travel website SmarterTravel.com, said higher gas prices might force travelers to stay at cheaper hotels this summer. They also may decide to cut their trips short. But most won't stay home.

The government made a number of other predictions in its report:

• Refineries will produce less gasoline and other fuels this summer. The decline of about 0.6 percent is tied to closures of three refineries that feed East Coast markets. Another refinery in Philadelphia is expected to be closed by July 1 if the owner, Sunoco Inc., can't find a buyer.

• Diesel prices should be 27 cents per gallon higher during the summer driving season, at an average of $4.21 per gallon. Prices could peak at a monthly average of $4.25 per gallon in the middle of the driving season.

Tribune reporter Steven Oberbeck contributed to this story. —

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