Gas Price is $4 or More for Nearly One-Third of Drivers

Gas price is $4 or more for almost one-third of U.S. drivers.

ByABC News
March 18, 2012, 8:55 AM

March 18, 2012 — -- Nearly one-third of the nation's drivers now fork out $4 or more for a gallon of gasoline.

After a 31-cent jump in the past month, regular gasoline averages $3.82 nationwide. But price analysis of major metropolitan areas and 10 states — home to more than 65 million of the nation's 210 million drivers — shows even more pain at the pump, especially in heavily populated California, New York and Illinois.

Gas prices have prompted plenty of grousing and political debate in a hotly contested presidential election year. But economists expect surging prices to have only modest impact on consumer spending.

Barring a major disruption in supplies from the Middle East, pump prices are expected to top out at about $4 nationally by Memorial Day weekend — about where they reached in 2011 and below July 2008's record $4.08.

Prices may have peaked in California, after a 51-cent surge to $4.36 a gallon since mid-February. "We're in the ninth inning there, but in the middle innings elsewhere," says Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. "Most of the country is going to move a bit higher."

Prices in California are impacted by costlier formulations mandated under state environmental regulations. A BP refinery in Washington state, shut down by a fire last month, also pushed prices higher along the West Coast.

Kloza notes that wholesale prices have been falling in California since late February, but pump prices haven't followed suit.

Patrick DeHaan, analyst for price tracker, expects prices to stabilize for a few weeks. "I'm worried about another increase in May," says Chicago-based DeHaan, where prices average $4.60 to $4.95, among the USA's highest.

Crude oil prices briefly sank nearly 2% early Thursday on short-lived rumors that the U.S. and Great Britain would release some strategic reserves. Benchmark West Texas crude for April delivery closed off 32 cents to $105.11 a barrel.

Speculators, betting on the tensions in the Middle East, continue to keep prices high at a time when U.S. consumption is at 12-year lows.

"An overwhelming avalanche of data tells you (U.S.) prices should be lower," says energy contract trader Dan Dicker, author of Oil's Endless Bid: Taming the Unreliable Price of Oil to Secure Our Economy. "But with some of these geopolitical problems, it could get worse."