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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Stability is the name of the game at the fuel pump so far this spring season, according to AAA.
Specifically, gas prices only rose about 2 cents in March, on average, nationwide. Wednesday's national average price of gas was $2.41 per gallon, which is about $1.15 per gallon less than a year ago, the association noted.
"This spring has been relatively pain free at the pumps for most drivers with a few exceptions," said Avery Ash, AAA spokesman. "Gas prices in most places are still relatively cheap and we have not seen the national average jump at the same dramatic rates that have been so common during the spring in recent years."
U.S. gas prices dropped to a near six-year low of $2.03 per gallon on Jan. 26 and have risen only 37 cents since then. According to AAA, it is common for gas prices to rise 50 cents per gallon or more in late winter and early spring as refineries conduct seasonal maintenance, which can limit gasoline production.
Even with stable prices, March did mark a milestone. The average of $2.43 per gallon was the cheapest average for the month since 2009.
California motorists did see prices reach $3.44 per gallon in March, driven by a refinery explosion and other production problems. As AAA explained, it can be difficult for local production to meet demand when California's refineries experience problems because there are no pipelines that connect the state to the major refining regions east of the Rockies.
Midwest motorists also experienced a brief uptick in prices at the pump in March as several large refineries in the region experienced temporary problems. For example, gas prices in Illinois jumped more than 33 cents per gallon, but have since begun to decline as refineries return to normal operations.
AAA foresees the possibility of lower gas prices by the summer — even dipping below the $2 mark in some areas — if refinery maintenance ends smoothly and crude oil remains relatively cheap. It does not expect the national average to rise above $3 per gallon at any point this year.
"There is a real hope that gas prices could drop significantly in time for the busy summer driving season," Ash said. "The overall outlook looks good for drivers, and with any luck we will avoid the types of problems that often lead to higher gas prices at this time of year."
Many refineries have completed seasonal maintenance, although unexpected problems could still occur. Many refineries and wholesalers will switch to more expensive summer-blend gasoline by May 1 to meet Environmental Protection Agency clean air regulations, the association noted.
As a result of the low gas prices, AAA estimates that U.S. households are saving a total of more than $425 million per day on gasoline compared to a year ago, which works out to an average savings of more than $100 per household a month.
About 93 percent of U.S. gas stations are currently selling gas between $2 and $3 per gallon. Roughly one in three stations is still selling gas for less than $2.25 per gallon. A year ago, nearly every station in the country was selling gas for more than $3 per gallon.
The five states with the highest average prices today are California ($3.19), Hawaii ($3.15), Alaska ($2.91), Nevada ($2.80) and Washington ($2.75). The five states with the lowest average prices today are South Carolina ($2.10), Tennessee ($2.14), New Jersey ($2.16), Mississippi ($2.16) and Alabama ($2.17).