Highest Ever Prices at Pump for September: When’s the Gas-Price Plunge Coming?

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Gas prices rarely rise after Labor Day. But they did this year, hitting a national average of $3.88 recently. That’s the highest ever average price for a gallon of regular in September, as GasBuddy noted. What’s more, in many parts of the U.S., drivers are now paying the highest gas prices thus far in 2012 — just as high as when prices at the pump spiked in early spring.

According to this week’s Energy Information Administration report, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.878 as of Sept. 17. That’s up roughly 28¢ from a year ago at this time. It’s also quite close to the highest price for all of 2012 thus far; the national average came within a nickel or so of the $4 mark in late March and early April.

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But a closer look at the numbers shows that many drivers are already paying the year’s highest prices in their regions right now. From March through April, the national average was pulled upward by extraordinarily high prices in California and throughout the West Coast. A gallon of gas in California regularly ran about $4.30 in spring. Lately, though, California’s average is closer to $4.10 to $4.15, and the overall average for the West Coast has been under $4.10 — $4.07 at last check.

What’s keeping the national average up near $3.90 — and not far off from the 2012 high — are soaring prices in other regions, particularly New England and the Central Atlantic states. The average gallon is now $3.99 in New England, the same as the year’s previous high, reached in mid-April. The numbers in the Central Atlantic are similar, averaging $3.95 per gallon now, roughly the same as highs hit in April.

We’ve been hearing for a while that gas prices would drop in September. To which drivers have responded, O.K., great, let’s get on with it already and put an end to the $75 fill-ups.

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A Baltimore Sun story, noting that gas prices in the Mid-Atlantic region have risen 30¢ over seven weeks, tried to explain the hike in prices as well as if and when they might come down:

“It’s not an easy thing, trying to predict what gas prices will do, because so many factors are involved,” [public and government-affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic Ragina] Averella said. “We expect prices will go down, but we always have to be mindful of ongoing geopolitical events, not to mention the fact that we are still in hurricane season.”

In Michigan, the $4.01-per-gal. average is the highest price this late in the year since 2008, notes the Detroit Free Press. And though it’s been said before and hasn’t come true, relief at the pump is supposedly in sight:

Gasoline prices will begin falling this week as stations switch to cheaper winter-grade fuels, according to Philip Verleger, founder of PKVerleger, an energy- and commodity-markets consulting firm.

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Based on falling oil prices this week, the forecast for cheaper prices at the pump should finally become a reality in the near future. Bear in mind that thus far, the overall national average for a gallon of regular is $3.63. That’s about 10¢ more than the average in 2011, the priciest year ever for gasoline in the U.S.

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.