The steady increase in prices early this year was caused by refinery maintenance and infrastructure concerns rather than higher prices for crude oil. Without similar concerns at the beginning of 2013, crude oil prices have been less expensive and volatile. —Rolayne Fairclough, AAA Utah spokeswoman
SALT LAKE CITY — Easter weekend and spring break marks an unofficial start of the driving season and those heading out on the road were greeted with good news: Gas prices are not climbing to the heights predicted at the start of the year.
Following a two-month period that saw gasoline prices jump almost 60 cents per gallon nationally, prices dropped earlier this month and analysts are now predicting stable prices through the summer.
“It could have a real impact,” said Salt Lake resident Brian Petersen. “We have two road trips planned to California.”
Earlier this year, oil industry analysts had forecast prices reaching a $4 national average, but recent revisions indicate that national average prices for regular unleaded may top out 20 to 30 cents below that.
“If the price gets to four bucks a gallon, we’ll cut out one of those trips,” Petersen said.
AAA Utah reported this month that nationally, the average price at the pump in March was $3.70 per gallon — 10 cents higher than February’s AAA fuel report, but a dime less than a year ago.
AAA Utah spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough said that even if prices do increase, AAA predicts that the national average price will likely crest lower and earlier than in recent years.
“The steady increase in prices early this year was caused by refinery maintenance and infrastructure concerns rather than higher prices for crude oil,” she said. “Without similar concerns at the beginning of 2013, crude oil prices have been less expensive and volatile.”
Doug Fogg of Salt Lake City said that his family typically takes several road trips south to Lake Powell or north to Island Park and Yellowstone during the summer. But while his summertime travel might not be significantly affected by higher fuel prices, some of his family’s time spent on the water might have been a casualty.
“We really feel the pain more in gas consumption when you’re running a boat,” he said. “We might spend a few more hours out on the lake if prices stay relatively low.”
Easter weekend drivers should find gas prices about 30 cents lower than at the same time last year, according Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for GasBuddy.com.
While lower than anticipated oil prices could keep pump prices from climbing this year, newly proposed federal standards aimed at improving air quality might have an adverse impact on transportation costs, some critics fear.
On Friday, the Obama administration proposed new regulations to clean up gasoline and automobile emissions, claiming the new standards would provide $7 in health benefits from cleaner air for each dollar spent to implement them. The costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers.
The Environmental Protection Agency said the new rule would reduce sulfur in gasoline and tighten automobile emission standards beginning in 2017, resulting in an increase in gas prices of less than a penny per gallon. The agency estimated it also would add $130 to the cost of a vehicle in 2025 but predicted it would yield billions of dollars in health benefits by slashing smog- and soot-forming pollution.
Earlier this year Amanda Smith, director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees the Air Quality Division, released figures showing that 57 percent of the air pollution along the Wasatch Front is caused by vehicles; 32 percent comes from area sources such as small businesses, homes and other sources; and 11 percent comes from industry.
Oil industry officials, Republicans and some Democrats wanted EPA to delay the rule, citing higher costs. An oil industry study says it could increase gasoline prices by six to nine cents a gallon.
“Consumers care about the price of fuel, and our government should not be adding unnecessary regulations that raise manufacturing costs, especially when there are no proven environmental benefits,” said Bob Greco, an American Petroleum Institute official.
Environmentalists hailed the proposal as potentially the most significant in President Barack Obama’s second term.
The so-called Tier 3 standards would reduce sulfur in gasoline by more than 60 percent and reduce nitrogen oxides by 80 percent, by expanding across the country a standard already in place in California. For states, the regulation would make it easier to comply with health-based standards for the main ingredient in smog and soot. For automakers, the regulation allows them to sell the same autos in all 50 states.
“We know of no other air pollution control strategy that can achieve such substantial, cost-effective and immediate emission reductions,” said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Becker said the rule would reduce pollution equal to taking 33 million cars off the road.
Contributing: The Associated Press