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.
Gasoline price comparison website GasBuddy.com reported Monday a range of gas prices in Washington state between $3.59 in Clarkston and $4.58 in Friday Harbor for a gallon of regular gas, with a state average of $3.96.
Kloza and other analysts expect prices to start dropping after Labor Day, so 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.
Higher gas prices aren’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.
Retail gasoline prices have risen nearly 12 percent since July 1 because of higher oil prices and problems with refineries and pipelines that created temporary supply shortages in some regions. An increase in the price of ethanol, which is blended into gasoline, was also a factor.
The pace of the increases has slowed considerably, however. Gas rose 19 cents in the two weeks ended Wednesday. It’s up just 1 penny in the five days since. Gas costs about 26 cents more than a month ago and 14 cents more than a year ago, according to AAA, OPIS and Wright Express.
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.
The price at the pump in the U.S. fell more than 60 cents per gallon during the spring as the global economy slowed and turmoil in the Middle East seemed to subside.
But crude oil has risen to $96 a barrel from a low of $78 in late June. Investors have 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.
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.