AAA: Gas prices see rare March decline

Gasoline prices that soared in early 2013 gave way to a rare March decline – one that could lower the temperature of political fights over energy.

AAA reported Monday that national average prices fell during March for the first time in 10 years, and current prices are almost 30 cents per gallon less than a year ago.

“The national average should remain less expensive than last spring,” the travel services group said in its analysis.

Prices currently average $3.63 per gallon. The decline of 15 cents per gallon last month was the first March decline since 2003, AAA said in its monthly report.

“It is very unusual for gas prices to decline in early spring like we have seen this year,” AAA spokesman Avery Ash said. “An increase in refinery production and lower oil prices in early March have combined to provide rare falling prices for motorists in comparison to recent years.”

Drivers' costs have been on a roller coaster. Prices soared 49 cents per gallon between the beginning of 2013 and the end of February, which was the highest increase through the end of February on record, according to AAA.

AAA is offering no assurances that prices won’t tick back up, but does not expect them to reach 2012 levels. “AAA has no record of gas prices ever peaking in February, and it is too early to say whether prices may have hit a high for the first half of the year,” Ash said.

“While it is possible that gas prices may surge briefly again this spring, the national average should remain less than last year’s high of $3.94 per gallon. Yet even with the recent declines, we cannot lose track of the fact that gasoline remains very expensive for many American motorists,” he said.

Prices are bouncing around as energy remains a focus of Beltway political fights. The recent dip arrives as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving ahead with regulations that will force refiners to produce lower-sulfur gasoline by 2017.

Republicans and industry groups say the rule will lead to higher prices at the pump, although EPA’s own analysis concludes the mandate will raise prices by less than a penny.

Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers are also pressuring President Obama to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Keystone critics say the project will not affect average pump prices that are tethered to global oil markets.

Today’s gasoline prices are lower than the costs during stretches of the 2012 campaign year and the proceeding year, which was also heavy on presidential politics.

In 2012, average gasoline prices kept rising through March and peaked in early April at $3.94 per gallon. The 2011 peak arrived on May 5 at $3.98 per gallon, according to AAA. The all-time high arrived in the middle of the 2008 political campaigns, reaching over $4.11 per gallon in mid-July of that year.