Gasoline prices average 12-year low for first quarter

Gasoline prices may be on the rise, but the average cost of a gallon of gas in the first quarter of the year was the cheapest it’s been in 12 years, according to AAA data.

The national quarterly average of $1.86 per gallon was the lowest since January through March of 2004, and it coincides with the cheapest quarter for crude oil since the end of 2003.

Because gasoline prices dipped substantially in January and much of February before beginning to spike, the cost of gasoline only went up by an average of 6.9 cents a gallon in the first quarter — the lowest on record by survey data. Going back to 2002, gasoline prices have risen by at least 14 cents in the first quarter of each year.

AAA estimated that Americans saved nearly $10 billion on gasoline in the first quarter compared to 2015, or about $45 per licensed driver. Average U.S. gas prices are about 36 cents a gallon cheaper than a year ago. The most expensive first quarter ever was in 2012, when prices averaged $3.58 per gallon.

The average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline on Friday is $1.89 in the Houston area — up 28 percent since bottoming out at $1.48 on Feb. 25 — and now up to $2.07 nationwide, based on GasBuddy daily survey data.

Gasoline costs are expected to keep rising in the coming weeks as many refineries undergo seasonal maintenance shutdowns to switch to pricier summer-blend fuels. The seasonal maintenance work is the main reason gasoline prices almost always rise in February and March, barring a sharp dip in oil prices.

For instance, every $10 change in the price of a barrel crude oil can move gas prices by nearly 25 cents per gallon, AAA estimates.

Likewise, the surplus of crude oil supplies in the U.S. — 13 percent higher than last year — has turned into a gasoline glut with supplies about 6 percent above 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And gasoline demand is continuing to grow, largely in part because of cheap gas and greater vehicle sales. The U.S. is expected to break the 2007 record for gasoline consumption this year, said Patrick DeHaan, GasBuddy senior petroleum analyst.

Americans drove 3.1 trillion miles in 2015, which was an all-time record and 3.5 percent higher than in 2014, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Transportation. AAA estimates indicate Americans drove 240.7 billion miles in January, which was the most ever for the first month of a year.