Autumn brings little fall in gasoline prices

This year is on track to be the most expensive ever for drivers, as gasoline prices soared to all-time highs for September, the fifth record-breaking month in 2012, according to AAA.

U.S. drivers paid an average $3.83 per gallon of regular gasoline last month, surpassing the previous September record of $3.72 in 2008. With ongoing social unrest in the Middle East and refinery troubles in the United States, fuel-price trackers say motorists’ wallets will be pinched through the rest of the year.

With gasoline hitting $3.78 a gallon Monday – 16 cents higher than the previous record for the date on Oct. 1, 2008 – pump prices have been at record levels for 43 days straight.

“They’ll break daily records through the end of this year,” said Michael Green, AAA spokesman. “There have been a whole host of refinery issues this year. With the combination of high oil prices and low gas supplies, we are really seeing prices rise.”

The highest U.S. gasoline prices ever occurred in July 2008, but the averages for that year were lower because pump prices later plunged along with the economy, and regular dropped from above $4 per gallon to below $2 in less than four months.

Last year set the record for the average annual price, at $3.51.

But the average so far this year is $3.64.

The year of pricey gasoline started in January, with Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key route for petroleum shipments. The strait has stayed open, but political disputes and social unrest in the Middle East have kept crude prices steep on the world market, contributing to higher gasoline prices.

Trouble at refineries

The average cost per gallon broke U.S. monthly records in January, February, March and April.

Typically, gasoline prices drop at the end of the summer driving season, as demand slows and refiners switch to the lower-cost winter blend fuel. But Hurricane Isaac disrupted production, causing power outages and floods near several Gulf Coast refineries in late August. Then a major fire shut down Chevron’s Richmond refinery in California, taking part of a key West Coast supplier temporarily out of service.

Meanwhile, European refiners have curbed their exports to the United States, said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director for the Oil Price Information Service.

As a result, September prices remained high.

“We had import problems on the East Coast and refinery problems on the West Coast and a number of other snafus that have kept the prices higher,” Rozell said. “We still anticipate the prices to go down, but they won’t come down as much as we expected them to.”

He expects the national average to fall to $3.50 by year’s end.

Texans pay less

Drivers are faring better in Texas, where prices are among the nation’s lowest. A gallon of regular averaged $3.55 in the state on Monday. Drivers in South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama are the only ones filling up their tanks for less, according to AAA.

Regular fuel averaged $3.54 Monday in Houston.