Many drivers are giving more at the pump than a year ago but they still have reason to be thankful. Prices in many parts of the country have fallen recently, including South Carolina, and AAA says gas prices could end the year lower than where they started.
The national average Wednesday was $3.43, down 44 cents from mid-September although still 8 cents higher than a year earlier. Gas started the year at $3.28 a gallon. AAA says it should be between $3.10 and $3.30 when 2012 ends.
The average price for gas in South Carolina is $3.13 a gallon, down 50 cents since peaking in mid-September at $3.63. South Carolinians are paying two cents less at the pump compared to last Thanksgiving, according to AAA Carolinas motor club.
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Still, because the price was so high for so much of the year, Americans are likely to spend a record amount for gas in 2012. Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service estimates that Americans will spend about $483 billion on fuel this year, eclipsing last year's record of $471 billion. And that's even as Americans use less gas by taking shorter trips or driving more fuel efficient cars.
The Energy Department estimates gas prices will average $3.64 a gallon this year after averaging a record $3.53 a gallon in 2011.
A number of things affect the price of gasoline. It starts with the price of oil, which can be impacted by everything from the strength, or weakness, of the global economy to tensions in the Middle East. That oil is turned into gasoline and other products at refineries. The U.S. has about half the number of refineries it did 30 years ago. When one goes down due to a fire or unplanned maintenance, it can lead to a shortage of gasoline, which sends prices higher.
All of these factors have come into play in a big way this year. That's why prices haven't just been high — they've been on a roller coaster. There have been four separate swings of at least 40 cents — two higher and two lower.
Thanksgiving holiday travel volume in South Carolina is expected to increase 1 percent this year, due in part to the drop in gas prices, AAA Carolinas said.
A total of 617,110 South Carolinians are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home. About 555,400 or 90 percent of those will drive, a rise of about 5,400 travelers over last year.
“The lower price at the pump will encourage more people to drive this Thanksgiving,” said David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas.
South Carolina currently has the second-lowest average gas price in the country; Missouri has the lowest at $3.08. The highest average price in South Carolina is in Charleston at $3.19 per gallon of unleaded self-service; the least expensive average price is in Myrtle Beach at $3.05.
Although Superstorm Sandy hasn't affected gas prices in South Carolina, motorists traveling to the Northeast can expect to pay more, particularly in New York, which at $3.93 currently has the most expensive gas in the continental United States.
South Carolina motorists can also expect to see higher gas prices in the bordering states of North Carolina ($3.31) and Georgia ($3.26).
Warren L. Wise contributed to this report.