The outlook at the pump is getting brighter for Labor Day motorists.
Gas prices dropped by roughly a penny from a week ago, according to AAA. It's a slight decline, but it follows a general slide in gas prices over recent months, and some hope the downward trend will continue through Labor Day's travel weekend. But a hurricane, or heightened unrest in the Middle East, could change that.
"If there’s any sort of disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico, it obviously could have a significant impact on gas prices," Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com, said in a telephone interview.
In 2005, hurricane Katrina made landfall in the last week of August, upending gas prices that were approaching $3.00 in many parts of the country. The devastation wreaked on the Gulf region – which accounts for about 23 percent of the nation's oil output – sent gas prices higher by as much as 50 cents.
This year hurricane activity has been quieter and refineries have been running relatively smoothly across the country, keeping gas prices from rising. The national average was $3.54 a gallon Monday, according to AAA, the national auto club based in Heathrow, Fla. That's down 13 cents from a month ago and 18 cents from last year.
It has been less quiet in North Africa and the Middle East, where conflicts have closed refineries and terminals throughout the summer. In Egypt, violence has threatened to spread to major oil-exporting countries or crimp shipments through major transportation routes.
Investors have expressed their concern on the commodities markets, where the price of oil has been trading at above $100 a barrel.
"If the ruckus continues to get louder over there, and if there’s any possibility of supply disruption, it certainly could push oil prices and thus gas prices higher," Mr. DeHaan said. "But today, for example, oil prices are pretty quiet."
Going into Labor Day weekend, gas prices should stay between $3.45 and $3.65 a gallon, DeHaan said, with prices the highest in Hawaii, Alaska, and California.
Drivers are likely to enjoy even more favorable gas prices after Labor Day as peak driving season wraps up and refineries make the switch to cheaper, winter-blend fuel.