Gas Prices Are Finally as ‘Cheap’ as a Year Ago

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We’ve come a long way. For much of 2012, drivers have been paying 10¢, sometimes 25¢ more per gallon than the same time in 2011—which was the priciest year ever for gasoline.

At long last, when drivers pull into gas stations this week, they can at least take some comfort in the fact that they’re not paying more than they were at this time last year.

According to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report, as of Monday we’ve finally reached the point where the national average is the same as it was one year prior: $3.43. It’s been quite a wild ride to get here.

Even after experiencing one of the biggest ever declines in gas prices toward the end of October, prices around the nation remained quite high—roughly 20¢ per gallon pricier than the same period 12 months before. That differential was better than in mid-September, when prices were 28¢ more than the same time in 2011, and much better than in mid-October, when drivers were paying 34¢ more per gallon than the year before.

(MORE: Gas Prices Take a Huge Post-Sandy Plunge)

Gas analysts have been predicting lower prices for months, and while the once-forecasted national average of $3 gas by Thanksgiving now seems highly unlikely, at least we’re no longer paying well above what we had to pay a year ago.

If there’s one thing that 2012 seems to have proven, it’s that predictions about gas prices are largely useless. The year has been characterized by wacky swings in the market: For instance, California drivers are now paying an average of $3.86 per gallon, down from $4.67 one month ago. California usually “leads” the Lower 48 states in terms of the highest gas prices, and yet in mid-March, fuel costs in Chicago ($4.41) were higher than Los Angeles or San Francisco. Lately, the post-Sandy market has meant that California drivers are paying less than the average New Yorker ($4). New York drivers are even paying slightly more their counterparts in Alaska ($3.99). (Hawaii remains the most expensive state for gas, at $4.20.)

What happens from here? No one knows for sure (recall above comments about the “accuracy” of gas price predictions). GasBuddy analyst Patrick DeHaan writes that price declines at the pump are likely to fizzle out, and that he expects prices to be higher than those of the final months of 2011:

Last year … the national average continued decreasing until Christmas, when it bottomed out at $3.231/gal. For that to happen this year, prices would need to shed another 23c/gal, something that just at this point doesn’t seem so feasible anymore.

(MORE: For Holiday Shoppers, an Extra Bloated Black Friday)

If there is one “prediction” we can all bank on, it’s this: Considering how high gas prices have been this year thus far, and how little time we have left before it’s time before it ends, 2012 is all but guaranteed to surpass 2011 for the title of Priciest Ever Year for Gas.