By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
Like summer temperatures, gasoline prices show few signs of cooling off.
After dipping to $3.33 a gallon and flirting with $3 in the South, the nation's average gas price climbed 17 cents over 26 consecutive days in July. It was the first monthly gain since March and the biggest July jump since at least 2000, AAA said Tuesday.
Nationally, regular gasoline now averages $3.50 a gallon, although it's pricier in 25 states.
"More and more locations say prices are above where they were last year - and last year was the most expensive for motor fuel," says Oil Price Information Service analyst Tom Kloza. Gas averaged $3.71 a gallon in July 2011.
The Midwest is particularly pinched. Refinery woes in Indiana and Illinois have crimped output, propelling prices to as high as $4.29 a gallon in Chicago and to near $4 levels in several regions of the Rust Belt.
"It's been pretty lousy," says Patrick DeHaan, senior energy analyst for price tracker gasbuddy.com. "In some states, there's been a 40- to 50-cent increase."
Hawaii has the nation's highest average gas price at $4.15 a gallon, followed by Alaska at $4 and Connecticut at $3.82.
The three states with the lowest prices are in the South: South Carolina at $3.20, Mississippi at $3.24 and Alabama at $3.25. State taxes, which can tack on up to 42 cents a gallon, explain part of the difference.
Nationally, prices have climbed in tandem with crude oil. Although benchmark West Texas crude lost 2% Tuesday, it was up about 3% for July - the first monthly gain since April. Much of that came on speculation that Europe's debt crisis would finally be resolved and hope that the Federal Reserve would launch new measures to stimulate the U.S. economy, DeHaan says.
August prices are likely to climb to a national average of about $3.60 before pulling back after Labor Day, says Kloza, who still expects gas to slip to $3 a gallon by November as seasonal demand slips.
Overall prices should be lower now, based on near record inventories.
"You'd like to think $2.99 a gallon is reality, based on the fundamentals," DeHaan says. "But Europe, instability in the Middle East and good economic news can throw gas prices higher. And at this point, there's more potential for prices to stay high than for them to drop off a cliff."
While drivers have cut back on consumption, economists say many are keeping current prices in perspective, given the 43-cent plunge from April's $3.94 high.
"The bottom line is gas prices are still a lot lower than in April, and lower prices certainly helped consumer spending in May and June," says Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.