Delta Brogden pumps gasoline at a station in Atlanta. / David Goldman, AP
That temporary reprieve in rising gasoline prices? It's over.
Gas prices inched up to $3.78 a gallon Tuesday after holding steady at about $3.77 the previous two days. The respite ended 36 days of price gains that had pushed pump prices nearly 50 cents a gallon since Jan. 1.
Crude oil, which had rallied to about $98 a barrel off of December lows, dropped below $92 in early Tuesday trading before finishing off 48 cents at $92.63 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Slumping crude oil prices and a further drop in wholesale gasoline prices - down 6 cents to $3.20 Tuesday - may keep a brake on costs at the pump. But experts still expect prices to rise another 20 cents a gallon before peaking just below $4 in late March or early April.
"We broke the rally and should see relative stability in the next week or two,'' says Patrick DeHaan, senior energy analyst for price tracker gasbuddy.com. "But after a little bit of a breather, it's certainly possible we'll see prices appreciate into April."
AAA spokesman Michael Green notes that gas prices climbed 39 straight days in early 2012, before dropping for three days, then went up another 23 consecutive days.
"This may be a nice breather,'' Green says. "But motorists are paying more for gas at this time of year ever before and prices are likely to continue to climb."
Nearly 10% of stations are selling gasoline for over $4 a gallon as of Tuesday; just 5% are selling gas for below $3.50 a gallon.
Highest average price in the continental U.S: California, now averaging $4.24 a gallon. Lowest: Wyoming, where motorists are paying $3.26 a gallon.
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