California's average pump price has fallen below the driver-irritating $4-a-gallon mark for the first time since March 21, the Energy Department said.
The average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline in California was $3.994 on Monday, down 6.2 cents from a week earlier, according to the Energy Department's weekly survey of service stations. That's still 92.6 cents higher than at the same time last year. But it was down more than 26 cents from the May 2 peak of $4.257, leaving California in the rare position of not having the most expensive gas in the continental U.S.
"It's looking like a pretty good drop in prices in California at the moment. Hopefully, it won't come screeching to a halt in the next few weeks," said Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.
In the Los Angeles area, gasoline could be found for as little as $3.77 a gallon at a Thrifty service station in the City of Commerce, according to GasBuddy.com, which posts prices spotted by volunteers. At least a dozen other stations in the L.A. area were also selling gasoline for less than $3.80 a gallon.
The national average fell just 1.3 cents over the last week to $3.781 a gallon, the Energy Department found. That was because of an unusual spate of problems in the Midwest, where prices rose 5.8 cents a gallon to an average $3.859. Three important Illinois refineries, including Exxon Mobil Corp.'s 238,600-barrel-a-day facility in Joliet, have been shut down in recent days, analysts said.
Also, the Midwest has had two major petroleum pipelines closed, including TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone Pipeline, which was back online Monday after being shut down twice in the last month because of leaks.
"All of that has contributed to a big spike in prices in the Midwest," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com.
The situation left Illinois with the most expensive gasoline in the continental U.S. at about $4.15 a gallon, followed by Michigan at about $4.12, according to a separate price survey by AAA. The Energy Department said Chicago had the nation's most expensive gasoline among big cities at $4.254, or about 24 cents higher than Los Angeles.
In other energy news, oil fell below $100 a barrel Monday in the U.S. as investors and economists await news from a key meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Wednesday. Traders were also waiting to hear details on the outlook on U.S. supply and demand.
Analysts said it was unclear whether OPEC would agree to increase oil production to replace the barrels lost through the ongoing conflict in Libya.
"We may even have two Libyan oil ministers show up, and it should make for interesting theater to watch as to who will be allowed to officially represent this country in turmoil," independent fuel price analyst Bob van der Valk said.
Benchmark West Texas Intermediate for July delivery lost $1.21 to close at $99.01 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In London, Brent crude lost $1.36 to close at $114.48 a barrel.