HOUSTON — As the Memorial Day weekend and the summer driving season approach, gasoline prices are easing. But most drivers will find prices only modestly lower than a year ago.
Nationwide, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has been drifting lower by about half a cent a day over the past month, and energy analysts say that trend should continue over the next few weeks, in at least some states.
"Drivers are getting a respite," said Rodney L. Waller, a senior vice president at Range Resources, an oil and gas company based in Fort Worth, Texas. "But it's a tenuous respite based on all the changes in the global oil market and the opening and closings of refineries across the U.S."
Gasoline prices are dropping primarily because of a decline in global crude oil prices, which can be attributed to an easing of tensions in the Middle East and growing oil supplies, bolstered in recent months by the rapid return of Libyan oil exports and increased production from Saudi Arabia.
The national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline Thursday was $3.67, nearly 30 cents below the high for the year reached in early April. A year ago, the average prices stood at $3.85 a gallon.
Energy analysts say prices this summer should remain a few cents lower than last year but about 75 cents a gallon above the level in the summer of 2010. The economic effect of the lower prices is tentative because prices could easily surge again.
The spike in oil prices last year was because of the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, especially the loss of more than a million barrels a day of high-quality crude from Libya during the insurrection against the Gadhafi dictatorship. After easing for a few months, prices surged again early this year over fears that Iran might block supplies from passing through the Strait of Hormuz in response to tightening European and U.S. sanctions or the possibility of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear plants.
"If there are any problems on the supply side, as in Iran, Libya or Nigeria, then prices will be right back up," said Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research. "Global inventories are not that high, and production is pretty much flat out in OPEC. A lot depends on how negotiations go with Iran."