The most expensive year ever for gasoline purchases in the U.S. is heading to a close — but not without another dig at motorists' wallets.
Pain levels at the pump rose again over the last week in California and across most of the nation, assuring that 2011 will mark the second year in a row that prices have posted record December highs.
The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in California hit $3.576, up 2 cents since Dec. 19, according to the Energy Department's weekly survey of service stations. That shattered — by 28.9 cents — the old record of $3.287 a gallon set in December 2007 and was tied in December 2010.
Nationally, the numbers told a similar story. The U.S. average for a gallon of regular gasoline rose 2.9 cents over the last week to $3.258. That was 20.6 cents a gallon higher than a year earlier and 20.5 cents higher than the record high set in December 2007.
Americans are on track to spend $483 billion this year, breaking the 2008 record of $448 billion, according to Oil Price Information Service.
Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for price-tracking website GasBuddy.com, said Americans may see more record prices in spring 2012, adding "don't look at the gas prices unless you have to."
But Americans aren't complaining as much as they did in 2008 when prices peaked at $4.588 a gallon in California and at $4.114 nationally, followed by a sharp decline, said Marie Montgomery, spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.
"Holiday travel is still pretty good," Montgomery said. "People still want to reconnect with family and distant friends."
Montgomery noted that motorists said that they would drive only about 700 miles during the year-end holidays, or nearly 300 miles less than last year.
In other energy news, crude oil prices gained ground. U.S. benchmark oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose $1.66 on Tuesday to $101.34 a barrel.
In London, Brent crude climbed $1.31 to finish at $109.27 a barrel on the ICE Futures Exchange as most traders discounted Iranian threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important choke point for the transport of oil.
"The Iranian economy depends more on oil than anything else," said PFGBest Research analyst Phil Flynn. "They would be shooting themselves in the foot to do that."