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Gas prices seen holding steady through summer

Odette Ramos stood by her green Toyota RAV 4 at an Exxon station in North Baltimore last week as the lighted orange numbers on the pump rang up a lovely total for a fillup of regular unleaded gasoline: $27.72.

"That's pretty good. It used to literally be $50," said Ramos, executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, who was paying $2.25 and nine-tenths a gallon.

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"It's been really nice this year not to be paying 50 bucks."

If the gas price experts are right, it'll stay nice through spring and into summer. Barring a spike in crude prices, or a disaster that disrupts refineries, summer prices are expected to be as low or lower than they've been since 2009. Perhaps even as low as they were in 2005, acccording to one petroleum analyst.

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At a time of year when the shift to summer gasoline blends and greater demand during heavy driving season usually spikes gas prices, signs point to a rise of perhaps a few cents in the next few weeks, but the price at the pump is expected to hold steady through July and August.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded in Maryland this week is $2.36, acccording to AAA Mid-Atlantic. That's down from $2.46 last month and $3.59 a year ago.

"We expect drivers will continue to see pump prices slide leading up to the summer driving season," said Ragina Cooper-Averella, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Prices could rise a few cents in the next few weeks as gas stations shift to summer gasoline blends that include more expensive additives to slow the rate at which the fuel evaporates, said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com, based in Chicago. The shift is required by the Clean Air Act to curb air pollution.

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The Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, last week predicted a national average gallon price ranging from $2.50 this month to $2.43 in September.

That would be the lowest season average in Baltimore since $2.40 in 2009, in Baltimore, DeHaan said.

He said prices might rival those of the summer of 2005, when a gallon of regular unleaded ranged from $2.10 to $2.30.

The average household "is expected to save $700 in gasoline spending when compared to last year," the EIA reported.

That's good news for Ramos, whose job takes her from her home office in Charles Village to Annapolis two or three times a week during the legislative session, and all around the state the rest of the year. She and her husband also visit her mother-in-law in Ocean City a couple times during the summer.

The gas price report was also welcome news for Danny Roitman, who stopped at the Exxon at West Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road to put some regular unleaded into his black 2011 Jeep Liberty. A fine car, he said, but a "guzzler."

He was leaving the tank just shy of a fillup so he could take advantage of a free car wash with a fillup on a day when it was not raining, as it was that morning. The orange digits registered his purchase as $25.50.

Roitman commutes from his home in Pikesville to a marina downtown, and figures he's saving maybe $100 or more a month.

"It definitely makes me happy that it's cheaper," he said. "I hope it stays like that."

Maybe there would be money now for a dinner out, he said, but in the next breath he wondered aloud how much difference it would really make in the broad scheme of his household budget.

"I have so many expenses, [the money saved on gas] just disappears," he said.

Troy Joyner, a tractor-trailer and Uber driver, also wondered how much the price difference would matter for him. For his Chrysler he uses on his Uber rounds he buys strictly premium gas, which was going for $2.65 a gallon at the Exxon station. Up the road a bit it's $2.85, he said.

Joyner is annoyed at the range of prices you can find from one station to the next.

"It doesn't make much difference if it's $2.85 or $2.65," he said.

Aly Glassband of Owings Mills had no doubt that the prices were good for her pocketbook. A recent college graduate now teaching special education in Baltimore, she said she spent her undergraduate years driving up to school in Massachusetts and back home to Maryland a few times a year, and she welcomes the gas price break.

"It's definitely a big thing," she said as she filled her gray 2015 Hyundai Elantra at the Exxon station.

She wasn't sure if low prices would affect her driving habits, but it might mean she could look for a job a bit farther from home.

Cooper-Averella, the AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman, said gas price fluctuations do not tend to affect the summer holiday driving that the organization follows.

But "when prices are higher," she said, "we see people cutting back in other areas. They may eat out less or stay at a less expensive hotel, or stay with friends or family."

The EIA predicts low prices will spur demand for gasoline, translating into a modest increase of under 2 percent during the summer, ebbing out in 2016 in response to rising prices. The agency reported that higher gasoline inventories, stepped-up refinery production and imports would meet the rising demand.

Pump prices are being kept relatively low by low crude prices, said DeHaan. The barrel price for West Texas Intermediate crude, or "Texas light sweet" — a key benchmark — closed at $51.64 on Friday — down from a recent high last June of $105.79.

The highest price on record is $147.27 in July 2008, DeHaan said. The lowest since recordkeeping began in 1985 was $10.25 in March 1986.

Several explanations have been given for falling crude prices in the last few months, including slowing economic growth across the globe, greater U.S. production and more efficient vehicles.

News of the recent nuclear agreement with Iran prompted the EIA to predict that lifting sanctions against that oil-producing country could drop the price of crude another $5 to $15 a barrel.

Still, the benchmark crude price has been jumping around in recent weeks, DeHaan said. Since the year began, the West Texas Intermediate price hopped from a low of $44.53 to a high of $53.05. From April 3 to 10 alone, the price leapt from $49.14 to $53.98, and back down to $51.64 — a range of nearly 10 percent.

Crude prices lately have "become seemingly bipolar and are searching for an identity," said DeHaan. He could not even fake a rationale for the recent price fluctuations.

"Not much can explain that," he said. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. … It's literally been on a roller coaster.

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