(USA TODAY) Gasoline prices, on their annual climb ahead of peak driving season, may be hitting a 2014 plateau.
Nationally, regular unleaded gasoline now averages $3.66 a gallon, up from $3.53 a month ago but down from about $3.69 earlier this week, according to price tracker gasbuddy.com. Premium grade gasoline averages $4.03, while diesel fuel is at $3.96. Wholesale gas prices appeared to have topped out since hitting $3.11 last week. June futures contracts settled at $2.95 Friday.
Rising oil production has boosted U.S. crude oil inventories to nearly 398 million barrels, the highest level since 1931. Coupled with slower economic growth in big energy consuming markets such as U.S. and China, there's little pressure to drive prices higher for now.
"Prices could inch higher another week, but we're definitely near the top for the year,'' says energy editor Brian Milne of industry tracker Schneider Electric.
Crude oil prices have drifted lower after spiking earlier this year on fears that political upheaval between Ukraine and Russia would lead to cutbacks in Russian oil exports. But benchmark West Texas crude oil, which hit a 52-week peak of $104.10 a barrel April 16, settled at $99.81 Friday. Brent crude, which climbed to a one-year high of $111.42 a barrel March 3, ended the week at $108.51.
Gas prices are expected to average $3.57 nationally through September, according to an Energy Information Administration forecast, which expects 2014 to average $3.45 a gallon. That's down from a 2013 $3.51 average and $3.63 in 2012.
Californians continue to pay the highest prices in the continental U.S. Gasoline there averages $4.24 a gallon, up 37 cents from year-ago levels. Montana averages a nation-low $3.38 a gallon, according to gasbuddy.com.
North America's oil shale boom is also keeping prices in check. According to the American Automobile Association, consumers would likely be paying about 40 cents more a gallon without surging crude oil production.