Data from AAA East Tennessee on Wednesday indicates that drivers are paying more for gasoline than they did at the same time last year, with a jump of almost 30 cents, on average, per gallon in the past four weeks.
"The price increases typically seen in the spring are earlier and sharper than usual this year," said AAA public relations official Don Lindsey in a statement issued Wednesday.
Over the past two weeks, the Tri-Cities reporting region of Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol has seen prices at gas stations rise by an average of 24 cents.
Kingsport currently has the highest price for regular unleaded at a cost of $2.34, up 15 cents from last week.
Bristol and Johnson City price boards currently list unleaded at $2.32 per gallon, an increase of 10 and 7 cents, respectively, over last week.
"Fuel industry analysts think speculators are betting there will be less gasoline available to meet demand during the change to summer blends and are bidding prices up earlier than usual this year," Lindsey said.
"Drivers should make sure their cars are in good shape, take public transit where possible, and combine trips to reduce gasoline use," he added.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that oil prices jumped by more than $1 per barrel after the U.S. government reported an unexpected drop in crude inventories amid the lowest import levels since 2005.
Light, sweet crude oil scheduled for April delivery at gasoline stations was listed at $61.82 a barrel on the trading exchange.
Total U.S. motor gasoline inventories fell by 3.8 million barrels to 216.4 million barrels, a sharper decline than the 1.4 million barrel drop analysts expected.
The government said refineries operated at 85.8 percent of capacity during the week, down from 86 percent the prior week.