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Officials say lower gas prices also may be spurring more jobs. (2004 file / News Tribune)

Gas prices dip below $3 in parts of Minnesota

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Minnesota drivers are seeing something they haven't seen in a while, and we don't just mean snowy roads: the price of gas in parts of the state has fallen below $3 per gallon for the first time in nearly two years.

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Gas prices were reported as low as $2.94 per gallon of unleaded regular at several stations across central Minnesota this morning, according to minnesotagasprices.com.

The statewide average today was $3.12 per gallon, down from $3.23 just last week, $3.24 a month ago and one year ago. Drivers are seeing significant relief since late summer, when gas prices were as high as $3.97 across the Northland.

And there doesn't seem to be any reason gas prices should go up much in the near future, Gail Weinholzer, director of public affairs for AAA Minnesota-Iowa, told the News Tribune.

"There might be a few days where we see prices level off around the Christmas-New Year's holiday, but it's not going to be a big tick up," she said. "We see gas prices continuing to drop into 2013. ... I think they're going to be staying a lot closer to $3 than $4 for the foreseeable future."

Duluth stations showed prices as low as $3.13 per gallon this morning, with the highest prices in the state -- in International Falls, as often is the case -- at $3.39.

If your vehicle gets about 20 miles per gallon, the drop in gas prices since September means an extra $14 in your pocket after a 340-mile round-trip from Duluth to the Twin Cities.

The national average sat at $3.30 early today, the website reported. It's the lowest gas prices have been since early 2011, and the decline in price from October to November was the biggest drop nationally in three years.

Weinholzer said Minnesota's gas-price decline is even more dramatic than the national phenomenon because late-summer prices spiked due to pipeline problems in the Chicago area.

Nationally, oil and gas industry analysts say the steep decline in prices in recent months has been fueled by the annual seasonal decline in miles driven seen each winter combined with a rapid increase in U.S. oil production. U.S. refineries also are running full-bore after summer and fall disruptions due to fires and weather events.

Analysts caution that a drop off the "fiscal cliff" or additional unrest in the Mideast could send gas prices back up.

Cheaper gas actually is helping spur the national economy, driving down wholesale prices in November by 0.8 percent, the U.S. Labor Department reported today. Officials say lower gas prices also may be spurring more jobs.

AAA forecast today that 93.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more for the coming holidays. That's up 1.6 percent from 2011. Most of those travelers, 90 percent, will drive to their destination, with 84.4 million people on the road over the holidays. That's up 1.3 percent from last year.

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