Gasoline prices are behaving themselves right now. But if you’re planning a spring or summer road trip, you should budget for higher prices at the pump.
At least, that’s what the history of gas prices teaches us. Almost every year, the average retail price of gasoline reaches a low point sometime between midwinter and early spring, then rises steadily as the weather warms. Part of the reason has to do with simple demand: Americans tend to hit the roads for vacation in greater numbers during the spring and summer than during the winter. For instance, in 2016 motorists burned up between 8 million and 9 million barrels of gasoline per day during January, compared to nearly 10 million barrels per day throughout the summer months.
And part of the reason for the spring price rise has to do with the fuel itself. The so-called winter blend gasoline that refineries churn out during the cold months costs a bit less to make than the summer-blend varieties that they are required to produce when the mercury rises. (AAA has a handy explanation of the difference between the two basic types of gas.)
Of course, gas prices also depend heavily on the price of crude oil. If crude happens to plunge during the spring, retail gas would likely follow suit. But despite last week’s sharp drop in oil prices, I expect the downturn to be short-lived.
So, what should drivers look to pay at the pump this spring?
Start with where we are now, which according to AAA, is a national average price for regular unleaded of $2.29 per gallon. That’s about the lowest average price we’ve seen this winter. If seasonal patterns hold and if oil prices start to recover as I expect them to, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the national average rise to about $2.70 per gallon by late spring.
That would be higher than last year, when spring prices peaked at $2.40 per gallon in late May, but a bit less than 2015’s peak of $2.84 per gallon, reached in mid-June. And of course, it wasn’t very long ago that drivers paid quite a bit more. Indeed, between the beginning of 2011 and October of 2014, the national average price of regular unleaded never fell below $3 per gallon.
The bottom line: Prices stand to move higher, but probably not high enough to put a serious hurt on most consumers’ wallets and cause spending on other goods and services to suffer. No one likes paying more to fuel up, but this spring’s prices will probably seem bearable compared to recent history.