NEW YORK — Gasoline prices are on a summer slide, giving U.S. drivers a break as they set out for the beach and other vacation spots for the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
The national average for a gallon has fallen for 21 straight days and is now below $3.50 for the first time since February. The reason: Oil prices have been relatively stable, and refineries are turning out more gasoline after completing springtime maintenance.
The drop may be interrupted temporarily because oil prices spiked Wednesday on fears that turmoil in Egypt will disrupt the flow of crude in the Mideast. Analysts, however, don't expect a sharp increase at the pump because global oil supplies are ample and U.S. refineries are producing plenty of gas.
The national average price of a gallon is $3.48, according to AAA, OPIS and Wright Express. That is 16 cents below the post-Memorial Day high of $3.64 on June 10.
Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com, predicted the national average will hover between $3.30 and $3.60 for the rest of the summer. That would be somewhat lower than during the past two summers, when gasoline prices spent part of the season above $3.70 per gallon.
Oil prices shot up Wednesday above $101 per barrel, the highest since May 2012, as the crisis in Egypt deepened. Egypt is not a major oil producer but controls the Suez Canal, a major shipping lane for Middle Eastern crude.
While analysts are not expecting a resulting surge in gasoline prices, prices could rise quickly if the Mideast unrest does disrupt oil supplies. Gas could also climb if a hurricane threatens the heart of the refining industry along the Gulf Coast.
Gas prices typically rise in late winter or early spring, when refineries perform maintenance and switch from making winter gasoline blends to the more complex summer blends required for clean-air rules. When the nation's refineries aren't operating at full strength, supplies drop and prices rise. Once the maintenance is done, output rises and prices fall.
"When refineries go down, it can create immediate and severe havoc," Kloza said. "It's a very shallow distribution system, quick to fill and quick to empty."
Regional spikes and plunges are likely to happen more often in coming years. The number of U.S. refineries has shrunk by a quarter since 1993 to 143, but the nation's refining capacity has grown 18 percent since then. The remaining refineries are getting bigger, so if one goes down, it's a bigger shock to the system.