Gasoline prices take an unexpected tumble

Photo (c) Natalie_B - Getty Images

But the surprising break at the gas pump probably won't last

Gasoline prices, which normally rise at this time of year, have gone down in the last week, matching levels that were prevalent a month ago.

According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, the national average price of regular is around $2.52 a gallon, down three cents in the last week and about a penny less than a month ago. The average price of premium gas is $3.06 a gallon, and the average price of diesel fuel is $2.96.

Motorists in most areas of the country had been experiencing rising prices because the price of oil had risen, along with the stock market. But when stock prices fell sharply earlier this month, so did the price of oil.

Enjoy it while it lasts

Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, says consumers should enjoy falling gas prices while they last.

“We've seen a bit of a respite after oil prices dropped to $58 a barrel, but prices have rebounded, so that break at the pump is going to be short lived,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs. “It's just a matter of time before prices head back up again.”

And it's not just the price of oil that's going to send gasoline prices back up again. DeHaan says refineries are beginning their period of annual maintenance and switching over to more expensive summer grade blends. That has the effect of reducing the available supply of gasoline.

“According to the latest report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), refinery utilization has dropped two weeks in a row,” DeHaan said. “We're still looking for a rise of 25 cents a gallon in the average gasoline price between now and Memorial Day.”

According to AAA, the recent price decline has been fairly uniform across the country, with drivers in the Midwest and South seeing the largest prices declines. Hawaii, which always has the highest prices, and Indiana were the only states to see prices rise in the last week.

Hard to predict how long it will last

“The question isn’t how low will they go, but how long will we see prices decline,” said AAA's Jeanette Casselano. “A handful of major refineries are undergoing maintenance. If production slows at a high rate and if crude oil prices jump, these events could push pump prices back up in late February or March.”

The recent drop in oil prices coincided with an increase in production by U.S. shale oil producers that quickly added to the supply. But DeHaan says consumers can't depend on U.S. producers to keep a lid on prices.

A recent change in U.S. law now allows U.S. producers to export oil, and DeHaan says the U.S. hit a record earlier this month, exporting two million barrels a day.

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