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Drivers to pay 6 percent more for gas this summer

NEW YORK — U.S. drivers will pay an average of 24 cents more per gallon for gasoline during this summer’s travel season, the government said Tuesday.

Gasoline will cost an average of $3.95 per gallon from April through September, an increase of 6.3 percent from the same period last year, the Energy Information Administration predicted. The peak should come in May, when gas averages $4.01 per gallon, the agency said.

Gasoline already has jumped by 20 percent this year to a national average of $3.922 per gallon, according to auto club AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. Prices, which are posted on station signs on street corners across America, have both a financial and psychological effect on drivers, experts say. Already, high prices have led to strong sales of gas-sipping vehicles like the Toyota Prius, and they’ve become a major issue in the Presidential campaign.

Further price hikes will affect the kind of vacations Americans take, and will likely impact how they feel about the economy. They may even influence how Americans vote in November.

“People are going to notice” if the national average crosses $4, said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at Oil Price Information Service. “Anytime the price goes up, it’s going to affect things.”

The government said there’s a small chance the price could climb as high as $4.50 a gallon in June.

Pump prices have risen with crude oil, which is refined into gasoline and other fuels. Brent crude, which is used to price most of the oil used by U.S. refineries, has jumped by 14 percent this year. Benchmark U.S. crude has increased by 4 percent. The increase is largely due to a dispute over Iran’s nuclear program that has raised fears of a disruption in Middle East supplies.

Americans have responded to high prices by using less gasoline. That should continue over the summer, the government says. But energy forecasters still expect households to spend an average of $3,410 for gas this year, up $250 from last year.

The tourism industry pays close attention to gasoline prices during the summer since it has such a big impact on their bottom line.

Anne Banas, executive editor of the travel website, said that higher gas prices might force travelers to stay at cheaper hotels this summer. They also may decide to cut their trips short. But most won’t stay home.

“People will still travel for summer vacation and still perceive a driving vacation as cheaper than flying,” Banas said.

The government made a number of other predictions in its report:

— Refineries will produce less gasoline and other fuels this summer. The decline of about 0.6 percent is due partly to closures of three refineries that feed East Coast markets. Another refinery in Philadelphia is expected to be closed by July 1 if the owner, Sunoco Inc., can’t find a buyer.

—Diesel prices should be 27 cents per gallon higher during the summer driving season at an average of $4.21 per gallon. Prices could peak at a monthly average of $4.25 per gallon in the middle of the driving season.

The Energy Information Administration included its summer forecast as part of its monthly outlook.