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Gas savings will endure amid seasonal price rise

DALLAS >> Gasoline prices have started their annual springtime migration higher, but motorists should still save money at the pump in 2016.

The national average price for a gallon of regular has risen for eight straight days — the first time that has happened since last May, according to the auto club AAA — to about $1.79 on Wednesday. That’s still 54 cents cheaper than at this time last year. (In Hawaii, the average price was $2.56, down from $3.05 a year ago.)

Motorists may enjoy the relative bargain for a while. The Energy Department expects crude prices to average about $38 a barrel this year and $50 next year. That forecast was made before Saudi Arabia’s oil minister forcefully rejected production cuts during a speech to a major oil-industry conference last week in Houston.

Forecasters say prices should rise at least 30 cents or more by June. Demand will rise as people drive more, and supplies will tighten when refiners slow down to perform maintenance and switch to more expensive summer fuel blends.

The U.S. Energy Department predicts that the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline will peak at $2.08 from June through August. Tom Kloza, an energy analyst with the Oil Price Information Service, says the peak will be between $2.10 and $2.50 a gallon.

Either forecast would leave prices well below recent years. From 2011 to 2014, the national average on June 1 topped $3.60 and some places saw gas over $4. Last year, gas prices peaked in June at $2.80 a gallon.

Gas is cheaper because a glut of crude has caused oil prices to tumble. Even with a 30 percent rally since Jan. 20, benchmark U.S. crude closed Tuesday down 68 percent from its June 2014 peak.

Motorists may enjoy the relative bargain for a while. The Energy Department expects crude prices to average about $38 a barrel this year and $50 next year. That forecast was made before Saudi Arabia’s oil minister forcefully rejected production cuts during a speech to a major oil-industry conference last week in Houston.

Oil prices have been undercut by demand that turned out to be weaker than expected, especially in China and other developing countries. But for the most part, it’s a case of oversupply — more crude is gushing into world markets than consumers and industry need.

Last month, commercial inventories of U.S. crude topped 500 million barrels for the first time; they are more than one-third above their five-year average. Iran is expected to produce more oil now that it is free from international sanctions. And producers like Saudi Arabia, which could cut supply to prop up prices, are continuing to pump away instead.

Lower oil prices have led to layoffs at drilling companies and contributed to weakness in the stock market, but cheaper gasoline and heating oil are putting more money in consumers’ pockets.

The U.S. Energy Department estimates that the average household saved $660 because of cheaper gas in 2015 and will save another $320 this year.

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