After falling for two months, gas prices in the Tampa Bay area have reversed course and jumped nearly 15 cents a gallon this week.
The question among oil experts and anyone planning a driving vacation this summer is whether this spike represents a temporary glitch, or a hint of what's to come through 2012.
A gallon of regular unleaded now averages $3.573 in Tampa Bay, up from $3.428 a week ago, according to AAA Auto Club South. Statewide, a gallon now averages $3.617, compared to $3.497 last week.
That's after a couple months when drivers could at least enjoy the feeling of falling prices, and oil experts predicted prices could remain somewhat stable through the summer.
But this being oil, despite all attempts, nothing's predictable. This week's spike, for instance, had its origins a few weeks ago, when investors speculated that an economic rebound would significantly drain U.S. oil stockpiles.
Then, instead of dropping 2.5 million barrels, stockpiles only fell 890,000, noted AAA gas price analysts, and a dismal jobs report showed the economy added far fewer jobs than hoped.
"The negative economic news will likely cause oil prices to lose any gains made last week," said Jessica Brady, spokesperson, AAA Auto Club South. "Consumers will see an increase in gas prices this week as a result of crude oil closing higher than the previous week, but the increases should be short lived."
U.S. Gas prices have been on a roller coaster this year, bumped up and down by a series of crises and economic setbacks: Disruptions in supply of high-quality crude from Libya, floods disrupting plants along the Mississippi River, and the long-term growth in demand from China and India.
With each monthly report about jobs and consumer confidence, speculation by investors in oil gives prices another jolt.
Since last summer, prices statewide have been on a steady march upwards from $2.73 per gallon last September to just under $4 per gallon in May this year.
Some stations in the Tampa Bay area broke the $4 per gallon level for credit card purchases this spring. That's still below the state record of $4.079, set on July 2008, but it's still costing U.S. drivers dearly.
Motorists spent about $122.3 billion on gasoline this spring quarter, compared with just over $96 billion for the same stretch in 2010, according to oil watcher Tom Kloza.
After oil exporting countries failed to come to a consensus on increasing production in June, the United States and other countries announced they would tap into their strategic reserved to help ease prices.
The initial reaction among investors was "Sell! Sell! Sell!," Kloza said, and then "Buy! Buy! Buy!," with no real change in the fundamental data about supplies.
In a word, he called the market bipolar.
Looking deeper into the year, Kloza said most investors are expecting huge demand for oil as economies recover – pushing prices up again this winter. While he notes many investment banks have a vested interest in the outcome, several are forecasting oil at $120 per barrel in 2012, meaning $4 gasoline again.
Just in time for end-of-year holiday trips.