For first time in 10 years, March gas prices decline nationwide, stay flat in Chicago

Jia You, City Editor

For the first time in a decade, March gas prices stayed flat in Chicago and actually dipped nationwide, AAA announced last week.

The national average gasoline price decreased 15 cents during March, the first drop since 2003. Traditionally, gas prices rise in the spring and peak during the summer driving season.

“It is very unusual for gas prices to decline in early spring like we have seen this year,” AAA spokesman Avery Ash said in a news release, citing an increase in refinery production as a main factor.

In Chicago, gas prices stayed flat at $4.08 on the first and last days of March, said Patrick DeHaan, an analyst with the gas price-tracking website GasBuddy. Instead of increasing gradually over the spring season, gas prices spiked up in late January and February, DeHaan said.

“Instead of a slower, longer ascent in prices, prices went up very quickly earlier than they normally do, and then started to lose territory again,” he said.

One reason for this early hike might be a strong Dow Jones industrial average in January — one of its best performances in years. Oil prices tend to follow the Dow average because a higher performance in the latter indicates a good economy that would trickle down to keep oil prices high, DeHaan said.

“A lot of that bullish optimism may have spilt over to commodities,” he said.

Nami Nem, an employee at Citgo, 1925 Green Bay Road, said gas prices at her station dipped a little during the past month, staying just below $4 after a two-month increase.

The biggest factor contributing to the March gas prices might be a smoother season in refinery production. Typically, refineries undergo maintenance in the spring to prepare for summer oil production, a process vulnerable to mechanical breakdowns that may limit supply and raise prices.

“The equivalent would be your car stalls out,” DeHaan said. “Something’s bound to happen when you restart a facility.”

This year, however, things have been “relatively quiet” in refineries located nationally and in Chicago, DeHaan said. He predicts prices could stay at or below $4 throughout the spring if refineries continue operating smoothly.