By Emily Cahn - 05/24/11 02:30 PM EDT
Two energy experts said Monday that gasoline prices may drop in the coming weeks, but will likely see volatile spikes throughout the summer due to the turbulent political situation in much of the Middle East and what is predicted to be a strong hurricane season.
Gas prices have ballooned to an average of more than $4 per gallon in many regions of the country over the past few weeks, prompting criticism from Republicans of President Obama's policies on drilling.
And, while energy experts predict that gas prices will fall this summer, they said prices will still be higher than they were a year ago, meaning the issue will likely remain a political hot topic this summer, just as the 2012 presidential campaign gets off the ground.
Frederick Joutz, an economics professor at George Washington University, said gas prices will likely fall 50 cents over the summer, enough for Americans to see a change in their gas bills, but still almost $1 more than drivers shelled out per gallon one year ago.
“The consensus is this summer that prices are going to be higher than last year,” Joutz said. “Last year was about $2.80 a gallon, and this summer it will probably be around $3.50 and $3.80.”
Bruce Bullock, the director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, agreed that drivers will see lower gas prices over the next three weeks, but said that trend may not last throughout the entire summer.
“Barring any unforeseen events such as weather or something else in the Middle East, we should see some moderation in gasoline prices over the next three weeks or so,” Bullock said in an email. “However, it is difficult to say how long that will last.”
Bullock said gas prices are impacted by political turmoil, natural disasters and other economic factors including global demand, and that a mixture of these factors have made predicting gas prices difficult over the past year.
So far, Americans aren't expected to let gas prices keep them home over the Memorial Day weekend, with AAA predicting a modest 0.2 percent rise in travelers over the holiday often dubbed as the kick-off to the summer vacation season.
But, while gas prices may not be keeping Americans in their homes just yet, William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the cost of gas will remain an issue on American voters’ minds over the summer, no matter how either party tries to frame the issue.
"This is not some remote issue for Americans. This is one of their most frequent purchases, and so it's something they notice every week,” Galston said. “They'll reach their own conclusions."
-- Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.