Drivers getting an early start on the Memorial Day weekend are pulling out of gas stations with a little more cash in their pockets.
The national average for unleaded regular gasoline was $3.81 a gallon on Thursday. That’s 9 cents less than it was a week ago, according to AAA, Wright Express and the Oil Price Information Service.
Most stations across the country are charging even less — about $3.70 a gallon. That’s down 10 cents from Wednesday, according to Fred Rozell, retail pricing director for the OPIS.
Consumers in California, Washington, Illinois and five other states are paying the highest prices in a range between $3.91 and $4.28 a gallon. The cheapest prices — between $3.57 and $3.69 a gallon, can be found in Wyoming, Arizona, parts of the Midwest and the South.
Pump prices are expected to drift lower through the holiday weekend, reflecting lower oil prices, which are down about 12 percent since the beginning of May.
“There’s a lot of room between what the retailers are charging and wholesale prices so we should see that continue to creep down,” Rozell said.
AAA predicts nearly 35 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend, a slight increase from 2010. They are expected to spend less on things like hotel rooms and restaurants because of higher gas prices. Pump prices are the highest they’ve been since August, 2008.
In other trading, oil prices fell after the government offered fresh signs of slower economic growth. The Commerce Department confirmed that the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the first quarter. The government cited high gasoline prices, weaker-than-expected consumer spending and government budget cuts as reasons for the sluggishness. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of all economic activity.
Also, the Labor Department reported that more people applied for unemployment benefits last week.
Tom Bentz, analyst at BNP Paribas Commodity Futures, said oil traders watch every report for evidence of how the economy is faring. If the news is good, oil prices tend to rise on hopes that demand will improve. If the news is disappointing, prices fall, he said.
Benchmark oil for July delivery fell $1.27 to $100.05 per barrel in midday trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In London, Brent crude lost 52 cents at $114.41 on the ICE Futures exchange.
Natural gas prices dropped after the Energy Department said supplies continued to grow, rising more than analysts expected last week. Gas held in underground storage in the lower 48 states totaled 2.024 trillion cubic feet for the week ended May 20. That was 1.3 percent below the five-year average.
Natural gas for July delivery fell 12 cents, or 2.8 percent, to $4.300 per 1,000 cubic feet on the Nymex.
In other Nymex trading heating oil was virtually unchanged at $2.9908 per gallon and gasoline gained 1 cent at $2.9995 per gallon.