2012 Is Back on Pace to Be the Most Expensive Year Ever for Gasoline

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When it comes to gas prices, the “all-time high” is one record that drivers hope won’t be broken anytime soon. Last year proved to be the priciest ever for gasoline, with an overall national average of $3.53 per gallon, and now it looks like this year will surpass 2011′s mark and take the unfortunate title.

Choose your metaphor—soap opera, rollercoaster, whatever. Thus far, 2012 has been a dramatic, topsy-turvy, up-and-down year for gas prices. More up than down, actually.

The year started off with a sharp rise in prices at the pump, accompanied by predictions of $4 gas around the country by spring. Back then, the possibility of 2012 being the priciest year ever for gasoline seemed all but guaranteed.

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By the start of summer, though, gas prices had gone into reverse, and forecasts called for $3 gas by the fall. More recently, prices shifted gears yet again, thanks to refinery problems in the Midwest and California, causing fuel costs to rise once more. As of Wednesday, the national average was $3.71 per gallon, up from $3.40 one month prior—and up from $3.59 at this time last year.

Overall for 2012, reports USA Today, the average price nationally for a gallon of regular now stands at $3.61. Despite longer-term projections that gas prices will drop again once the refinery issues are no longer issues, it appears likely that prices will keep rising incrementally at least through Labor Day.

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Lately, it’s California drivers who are seeing prices soar seemingly by the hour. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average gallon of regular was selling in the Golden State for $3.80 as recently as July 30, and now costs about $4.10. The Midwest has been similarly been hit hard, with prices averaging $3.51 on July 30, and $3.79 lately.

Demand for gasoline usually falls off every autumn, and prices tend to follow the trajectory of temperatures—decreasing in autumn and winter, then rising in spring and summer. The EIA also reports that gasoline consumption in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2012 was down compared to the same period the previous year. In theory, as demand and consumption fall, prices should do the same. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Gas prices usually decrease in February, typically a low-demand and low-price month at the pump, but prices took off skyward in February of 2012.

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So while there are several valid reasons gas prices should decrease after Labor Day, no one can be quite sure they actually will decrease once vacation season is over and kids are back in school. And unless they drop through the fall, get ready for 2012 to officially be named the most expensive year ever for gasoline.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.