Gasoline prices have tumbled in recent weeks from their hurricane-induced highs, sliding 10 cents to a national average of $2.38 for a gallon of regular yesterday compared with a week ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Prices peaked at nearly $3.07 a gallon nationally after Hurricane Katrina struck oil operations in the Gulf Coast region. Hurricane Rita caused further damage, keeping prices elevated.
But since then, gasoline imports have increased, domestic refineries and oil production have been coming back on line, and consumers' thirst for gasoline has dipped. Gasoline prices, however, are still above levels of a year ago, when a gallon of regular was nearly 38 cents cheaper than it is today, according to the Energy Information Administration.
"Just like we were citing supply and demand as the reasons why prices went up, it's the same reason they're going down," said Doug MacIntyre, an Energy Information Administration analyst. "It's pretty much followed with what we would be expecting."
The fall in price in the Washington area has closely mirrored the national trend, according to a survey sponsored by AAA.
The declines come as lawmakers have raised the alarm about high prices and record profits at oil companies. Chief executives of major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., are scheduled to testify on Wednesday at a Senate hearing that will address the spike in prices.
Declining prices may be good news for President Bush, whose approval ratings have suffered in part because of consumer anger at spending more at the pump. Domestic job growth stalled in October, which many analysts attributed to high energy prices.
Analysts said that if crude oil prices remain where they are now -- just shy of $60 a barrel -- gasoline prices should continue to ease another 10 cents or so.
But oil prices remain volatile and are sensitive to world events and market conditions. Colder-than-normal temperatures in the United States, for instance, could increase demand for heating oil and push crude oil prices higher. That would cause gasoline prices to increase, analysts said.
"As long as crude oil is still up in the high $50s, gasoline at the retail pump can't come down too much," said Rick Mueller, an analyst with Energy Security Analysis Inc. in Wakefield, Mass.
"In a lot of ways we're hostage to the weather. . . . Everybody is kind of keeping their eye on the thermometer, seeing where that's going."
Prices for crude oil have risen as worldwide demand, especially in China, has surged faster than companies' ability to produce, resulting in tighter supplies.
The hurricanes knocked out several domestic refineries, crimping gasoline supplies. Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico also was damaged. That caused traders on the New York Mercantile Exchange and in other markets to push wholesale oil and gas prices higher, which trickled down to the gas pump in the form of higher consumer prices.
While refinery operations are returning to normal, the United States also received record imports of gasoline in late September and early October, which helped to relieve the supply crunch and bring down prices, analysts said. In addition, the higher prices decreased domestic consumption.
Drivers said they are pleased by lower prices but are suspicious of big oil companies reaping the benefits.
"Anything under $3 was a miracle," said Curtis Austin, 44, of Landover, as he filled his Nissan Maxima at a BP station in Northwest where regular was selling for about $2.56 a gallon. "You still have to wonder the why and the how. . . . It seems strange things were so bad so quick and now everything is back to normal."