Gasoline prices remain below $3 a gallon in at least 50 percent or more outlets in 14 states. But the national average has crept up three cents to $3.30 a gallon the past week and 8 cents since hitting a 2012 low of $3.22 in mid-December.
It's likely to get worse in the coming weeks. Crude oil prices are up about $10 a gallon the past month, with benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude closing at $93.09 a barrel Friday, finishing the week up 2.5 percent.
"The celebration is over,'' says Patrick DeHaan, senior energy analyst at gasbuddy.com, which operates 250 North American price-tracking websites. DeHaan expects prices to rise another 35 cents a gallon through early April before peaking at about $3.95 a gallon. That's on par with 2012's $3.94 peak and but below 2008's all-time record $4.11.
Still, DeHaan and the AAA expect 2013 gas to average less than $3.60 a gallon, ending a string of record high averages since 2008. Last year, the average price of gas was about $3.61 a gallon, up from $3.52 in 2011.
Despite decreasing demand, last year's prices were impacted by both global oil prices and limited refinery capacity. Refinery shutdowns and reduced production in California, Washington and Illinois caused both regional and national wholesale prices to surge before seasonal demand slumped in the fall. Pump prices fell nearly 15 percent between Sept. 14 to Dec. 22, according the AAA, on falling demand and higher inventories.
DeHaan expects less volatility and smaller price hikes in the Midwest and West Coast, but refinery woes could again plague the market.
"Americans think there should be this magic formula based on oil supplies. But refineries are the big wildcard," he says. "And even with higher energy production, increased fuel efficiency and lower consumption, we still may face rising gas prices.''
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)