(New throughout, adds detail, comment, graphic links)
By Joshua Schneyer
WASHINGTON, April 9 U.S. gasoline prices fell
for the first time in 11 weeks, government data showed o n
M onday, retreating slightly from near the $4-a-gallon level that
has made fuel costs a biting economic issue during an election
On average, U.S. pump prices declined to $3.939 per gallon,
the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. They were down
less than a penny, after finishing the week to April 2 at an
average $3.941 per gallon.
Pump prices are still at their loftiest seasonal levels
ever, potentially putting them on track for record annual highs.
Before this week, they had risen every week since late January,
alarming U.S. policymakers.
"We are very focused on gasoline prices," U.S. Deputy
Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman told Reuters on the sidelines
of a conference in Washington. "We are deeply concerned about
the effect on American families and American industries."
The U.S. administration continues to assess whether to
release crude oil from its 700-million-barrel Strategic
Petroleum Reserve to counter global supply disruptions,
including from Iran and South Sudan, which have helped push up
the price of crude oil by around 14 percent this year. No
decision has been made, Poneman said.
Benchmark U.S. crude futures have fallen more than 4
percent over the past two weeks, and shed 85 cents to settle at
$102.46 a barrel on Mo nday. The drops mean gasoline prices could
fall further in coming weeks, analysts said.
Since the cost of gasoline is largely derived from crude,
"we may actually see the national average continue to drop",
said Patrick DeHann, an oil analyst at GasBuddy.com.
U.S. gasoline demand has been running about 4 percent lower
than year-earlier levels, according to an EIA report last week,
which also showed domestic crude inventories grew by more than
16 million barrels in the second half of March, the largest
two-week stock build since 2001.
Average U.S. pump prices were 34 cents higher per gallon in
the first quarter of 2012 than in the same period of 2011.
"I don't know if $4 a gallon is the tipping point, but I do
know that (U.S.) consumers are taking evasive action," said
energy analyst Tim Evans at Citi Futures in New York.
"The higher prices go, the more heat politicians feel. And
rising prices are the main reason that U.S. gasoline demand will
never return to peak levels seen last decade."
Over the past half-decade, U.S. pump prices have typically
peaked over the May-to-July period, the driving season when
demand is usually highest.
Pain at the pump is more acute in some U.S. regions. Along
the West Coast, higher taxes and tougher environmental standards
have pushed average prices to $4.203 per gallon, although they
fell 3 cents from week-ago levels.
Unlike in 2008, when gasoline price spikes eroded U.S. auto
sales, consumers have been flocking to new-car showrooms this
year and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.
New U.S. car sales jumped almost 13 percent year-on-year in
(Additional reporting by Lily Kuo, Bobbi Rebell and Timothy
Gardner; Editing by Dale Hudson and Gary Hill)