Gas prices continue to creep toward $4

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Retail gasoline prices jumped 20 cents in the past 30 days — quickly moving closer to the $4 a gallon that consumer agencies are predicting for regular unleaded in Florida by Memorial Day.

Regular gasoline averaged $3.49 a gallon on Wednesday in Southwest Florida, according to AAA. That's 33 cents higher than a year ago.

However, neither AAA in Florida nor the Tampa-based GasBuddy.com expect the price to go far above $4 for regular unleaded in Florida. "Indicators do not point to that ($5 gasoline) in Florida," said AAA's spokeswoman Jessica Brady.

The price has already creeped up to $3.63 at three stations in Collier County, according to GasBuddy.com.

The Chevron at Whippoorwill Lane and Pine Ridge Road posted the lowest price ($3.43), according to the website.

Prices are expected to remain fairly stable during the remainder of the week, Brady said. That could change depending on political conditions in the Mideast, she said.

Iran has been threatening to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil moves. The European Union meets in late January and might consider imposing additional sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear development program, she said.

"If the EU decides to postpone sanctions, it's likely oil prices will fall," she said.

Worldwide demand for oil appears to be slackening some, possibly easing pressure on prices later in the year, analysts say.

If gasoline rises above $4 a gallon, it won't be the first time.

Prices peaked at $4.12 a gallon for regular unleaded nationally during July 2008 just before the economy collapsed, said Gregg Laskoski, GasBuddy.com senior petroleum analyst. At the time, crude oil traded at $147 a barrel. There was a great deal of speculation in the commodities market and the dollar was weak (against other currencies), making oil more expensive in the United States, he said.

Crude oil currently is trading for $100 a barrel.

About four cents of the latest increase is attributed to the expiration in December of federal tax credits for the ethanol industry, said Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum and Convenience Store Association, which represents about 7,000 gas stations.

Yet, Florida's gas prices are eight cents above where they usually are, and close to the national average, which on Tuesday was $3.37. Laskoski attributed that in part to a fluctuation in the price of gasoline coming into Florida ports from refineries in the Gulf Coast region.

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