By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
This year's surge in gasoline prices appears over, falling short of the record highs some had feared heading into peak summer driving season.
Prices have held at a national average of $3.92 a gallon the past week, below 2011's $3.99 high and July 2008's record $4.11.
"By the behavior of the market, things are just running out of steam," said Patrick DeHaan, senior analyst for price tracker gasbuddy.com. "Barring any major event - refinery problems, Iran - I think prices have peaked."
DeHaan said the national average could dip to $3.70 a gallon by early May. Typically, prices peak shortly before Memorial Day.
Providing relief at the pump: slumping crude oil and wholesale gas prices and lower consumer demand. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil fell 1.4% to $101.02 barrel Tuesday, a two-month low on fresh signs that U.S. oil inventories are rising and another selloff on Wall Street.
In a Tuesday forecast, the federal Energy Information Administration predicted prices will average $3.95 a gallon through September and could peak at $4.01 in May. But those estimates reflect crude oil at $110 a barrel. EIA is forecasting a bit of a break in 2013 prices - $3.73 a gallon. That's 8 cents lower than this year's $3.81 average, but 20 cents higher than 2011 prices.
Signs that the global economy is slowing should keep a lid on short-term prices, said Telvent energy editor Brian Milne, who notes that crude oil imports in China fell 6% in March.
There's also optimism that the political tensions with Iran - which boosted crude oil prices by $15 to $20 a barrel on speculative trading - could soon ease, Milne said.
Gas prices in some of the nation's priciest markets, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have already dropped 12 to 20 cents a gallon.
That adds "confidence that the overall market is heading down," said industry tracker Trilby Lundberg of the Lundberg Survey. "Even if demand were to surge, we have flush supplies, a lot of refining capacity and repeated assurances that Saudi Arabia would step in and hike production if there are problems with Iran."
Tom Kloza, of the Oil Price Information Service, said gas prices could spurt on unexpected news, but says fears of skyrocketing prices are unfounded.
"Perhaps it's time to call out all of those false prophets who thought that $5 gas was a certainty," he said.