In 1957, you could fill up your brand new Chevy Bel-Air for 30 cents a gallon and drive as far as your giant tailfins could take you. That’s about $2.91 per gallon in today’s money — cheaper than the current national average of $3.19, but far more expensive than the $1.16 you would have paid for a gallon of gas in March 2020.
Radical events like COVID-19 or the oil crisis of the 1970s can cause gas prices to climb to terrifying highs and fall to oh-so-pleasant lows. In between, prices unevenly but steadily rise over time, same as everything else. This guide explains why gas prices keep going up, the price per gallon you can expect to pay in each state right now, and how to prepare for when that price changes where you live, which it surely will.
Why Are Gas Prices Going Up?
Why are gas prices rising? To understand how to prepare for rising gas prices, you also need to understand the factors that affect them.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), four main factors determine the retail price of gasoline:
- Crude oil costs — that’s the primary driver of changing prices
- Refining costs and profits
- Marketing and distribution
Crude Oil Cost: A Primary Factor
No commodity on Earth gives more wealth and power to the people who control it than oil. Since only a small group of countries produce oil, its price and supply are inherently political — both can be shaped by global events, as the pandemic recently proved.
In the early days of the virus, factories shut down and highways emptied across the world sending demand for oil into a state of freefall. In March 2020, prices hit a rock-bottom $1.16 per gallon. Less than a year later, the vaccine rollout began and sent demand skyward again as people got back to their commutes, hit the highways, and started planning to travel again. By the end of the summer, the price of gas had nearly tripled from its March 2020 lows to a national average of $3.19. California, Nevada, and Hawaii are above $4.
Taxes on Gas
The first federal gas tax was in 1932. President Herbert Hoover originally created the tax to help pay millions of dollars in federal deficit due to the Great Depression. Federal gas taxes have since been rising.
State gas taxes, which vary from state to state, also play a role. This map shows gas tax rates in each state as of July 2021. California has the highest gas tax rate, a crushing 66.98 cents per gallon. At 14.98 cents per gallon, Alaska is as low as it goes. These rates don’t include the federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents a gallon.
State tax rates fluctuate for various reasons. One of the most popular uses for gas taxes is paying for highway maintenance and road repair. The logic is that by taxing gas, the people who use the roads the most contribute most to their repair.
Here are the current average gas prices per state for regular unleaded fuel, according to Choose Energy.
|Average Gas Prices in Each State|
|Prices accurate as of Sept. 2, 2021|
Counties can also impose gas taxes for extra revenue. Sometimes they use gas taxes to make up for any money they aren’t getting from the state that is needed to improve roads.
The EIA also states that seasonal demand can affect gas prices. In the spring and summer, after being holed up all winter, people emerge from their cocoons to do things like enjoy the outdoors and go on road trips, which means more driving. And if people are using more gas, then demand for fuel goes up. And more demand affects distribution — meaning higher prices.
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History of High Gas Prices
Much of the historical fluctuations in gas prices have been affected by politics. A look at the historical timeline of gas prices up to 2018 gives some insight into this:
Natural disasters can also affect gas prices. In 2012, Hurricane Issac had a huge impact on the Gulf Coast energy structure. According to the EIA, 93% of the 1,287,275 barrels of crude oil that were being produced daily on the Gulf of Mexico were lost. Natural gas and petroleum were also affected. The loss drove a spike in gas prices that was approximately 20 cents above normal for that time of year.
Sometimes, terrorism or even criminal attacks can send prices skyward. Part of the reason for the summer spike in gas prices this year, for example, was the successful ransom-hacking of the Colonial Pipeline in May by foreign cybercriminals.
Another problem that might affect gas prices is distribution, which can be regional as gas prices vary from state to state. In July 2015, gas prices in California exceeded $4 a gallon, which was due to issues with a new refinery problem in the Midwest. Just as manufacturers have production issues with normal consumer goods, refineries can also have issues producing gas, which causes delays. Refineries may also need maintenance, which can slow down gas production. For example, refinery maintenance was the main factor behind a rise in gas prices in April 2014. Today, California is one of just a handful of states where gas is over $4 again.
Sometimes it’s a combination of all these factors that have a high impact on gas prices. In 2012, according to the EIA, there were reductions in oil refinery productivity in the Northeast, which caused a spike in gas prices. Oilprice.com also cited political tensions with Iran as one of the factors contributing to the high gas prices during this time.
Anticipating Gas Price Fluctuations
Unfortunately, you have little control over gas prices. There are so many factors affecting gas prices that it’s probably hard for the everyday consumer to put their thumb on when gas prices are going to increase. But there are a few things you can watch out for.
First, pay attention to high-demand gas seasons. If you’re planning a road trip for July, and it’s December, don’t rely on the current gas prices to determine how much you will need to budget for gas. Remember that in the summer the prices will go up by about 35 cents.
Second, watch global politics. If you hear about political turmoil, natural disasters or other factors that can affect the production of crude oil in areas that are big exporters of oil, it might affect gas prices.
You might also want to watch the international relations policies of potential government officials. One of the few ways you can help affect issues like gas prices yourself is to vote for candidates who have policies that you think will cause global political stability — and therefore, have a positive effect on things like lower gas prices. Check your voter’s registration here.
Third, pay attention to local politics. Local governments can tax gas too. If there is an act or bill that will raise gas taxes in your local senate, you can anticipate the possibility of gas prices going up for you. Consider writing to your local government officials to state your lack of support for a gas tax increase. And consider voting for candidates whose views align with yours.
The EIA publishes a short-term energy outlook that discusses the factors affecting crude oil production and provides historical and forecast data related to oil and gas.
Websites like Oilprice.com also publish news about global events that are likely to affect crude oil prices to help keep you in the know.
How Gas Price Fluctuation Affects the Economy
There are a few ways that high gas prices affect the economy. According to CNBC, the effects on the economy can be mixed. Lower gas prices can put more money in the hands of the consumer, but higher gas prices put money into the U.S. economy since America is the world’s No. 1 oil producer, accounting for 20% of the world’s production, according to the EIA — nearly double that of Saudi Arabia.
How To Save Money When Gas Prices and Taxes Rise
Understanding why gas prices fluctuate can help you anticipate changes in your gas budget. But it doesn’t necessarily help you save any money. Here are some ways to reduce the amount of money you’re spending on gas.
Cutting out your commute will definitely cut your gas bill. According to Findstack, nearly two out of three people are now working remotely at least part of the time and about 16% of the world’s companies are now fully remote. The virus undoubtedly inflated those statistics, but it also ushered telecommuting into the mainstream forever. If your job allows it, consider working remotely to save on gas.
If you absolutely must be in the office, seek out those who live near you and make a deal. You can take turns driving to work to cut commuting expenses in half. You might even be able to find multiple people willing to travel with you. This mutually beneficial arrangement can also allow you to make use of carpool lanes available in many cities, which helps you skip right over traffic — saving you even more time and money. Apps like Wave Carpool and Moovit can make it easy.
Multimodal transportation is the term for daily transportation that takes advantage of transportation options other than cars. A multimodal commute may involve biking to the bus stop, taking the bus across town and biking the rest of the way to work. Or it might involve biking some days and driving or walking other days. Multimodal transportation is becoming more popular as a way for cities to address congestion and become more environmentally friendly.
Some cities are getting creative with transportation and offering innovative methods such as renting e-scooters to the public. Exploring other types of transportation might save you some gas money — along with possibly saving you the headache of driving in traffic.
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Take Good Care of Your Car
Taking good care of your car preserves its fuel economy, which means your car will use less gas. And things you might not expect can make your car less fuel-efficient. For example, poor tire pressure can negatively affect your fuel economy by up to 3%, according to Exxon. And using higher gears when driving can result in less fuel consumption.
Exxon also recommends using higher-grade motor oils and changing air filters on a regular basis to help with fuel economy. Higher-grade motor oil requires engines to do much less work because it’s thinner. Thicker oils, while more protective of engines, cause car engines to work harder and, in turn, decrease fuel economy. Researchers are working on making motor oil even thinner — and developing engines that will work with them.
Another driving habit that affects fuel consumption is speeding. According to fueleconomy.gov, speeding can lower your gas mileage by 15% to 30% on the highway and by 10% to 40% in the city.
Avoid using your car as a long-term storage solution. Reducing the amount of weight in the vehicle by not storing heavy items in the trunk — or even in the backseat — can make a big difference over time.
Fuel Rewards Programs
Some gas stations have fuel rewards programs you can join that offer discounts on gas or other perks. For example, Shell is currently offering 5 cents off per gallon. Also, ask around about local fuel-saving programs that might be available to you.
Some grocery stores offer fuel rewards as well. The Kroger Fuel Points program currently gives you a fuel point for every dollar you spend at Kroger — x2 on gift cards — which can be redeemed at Kroger gas stations. The Kroger rewards credit card gives you even more fuel points.
Other types of fuel rewards are available, such as credit cards that give you extra cash back on gas — 5% back as opposed to the normal 1% cash back. And the Bank of America Cash Rewards card allows you to get 3% cash back in the area of your choosing, which includes gas as one of the options.
Understanding How To Prepare For Rising Gas Prices and Taxes Helps You
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what causes high gas prices and how to anticipate when fuel prices will rise — as well as new strategies in your toolbox that can help you save money on your gas budget. The price of gas will continue to fluctuate, just as the wind will continue to blow and the sun will continue to rise and set. But watching crude oil prices and understanding gas seasons can help you prepare your budget for the future.
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Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this article.
Last updated: Sep. 7, 2021