ST. PAUL — The average price of regular gasoline in Minnesota inched up to $2.97 per gallon Thursday, July 1, ahead of what looks to be a costly July Fourth weekend at pumps across the state.

Nationally, prices for this point in the year are higher than they've been since 2014, according to AAA. Fully 89% of gas stations in the country are selling unleaded gas for $2.17 a gallon or more, the motor club said.

The statewide average in Minnesota was lower Thursday than the $3.12-per-gallon price seen nationally. But prices throughout the state varied and were noticeably higher in southwest Minnesota, with Rochester-area gas stations charging an average of $3.05 per gallon Thursday.

Gas prices tend to increase in the summer and around holidays but, according to AAA spokesperson for Minnesota Meredith Mitts, are up over the year partly because travel — and the price of gas along with it — was depressed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.

"So now that we are back in a state where people are feeling more comfortable traveling and have an increased confidence in the vaccine," Mitts said in a recent interview, "We are seeing an increase in travel all across the board. And that lends itself to more demand for gas, which brings us back to prices we were seeing closer to the 2018-2019 pump prices."

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Though up over a year ago, when the price of gas in Minnesota averaged $2.18 per gallon, the statewide average is still well below the record high of $4.11 per gallon recorded in July of 2008. Other factors contributing to the increased cost of gas at the pump, AAA wrote in a travel forecast this week, include the loosening of travel restrictions and other pandemic-related safety measures as well as the relatively high price of crude oil.

Though AAA anticipates gas prices will continue to climb over the summer, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently predicted peak pricing of $3.03 nationwide in June.

"U.S. and global oil producers are increasing their production, which should help moderate oil prices that have increased significantly as global economic concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic have begun to ease," Energy Information Administration Acting Administrator Stephen Nalley said in a recent news release.

Brent crude oil will stabilize at an average of $68 per barrel midway through 2021, the administration predicts, after reaching a three-year high of $74 last week. The price is forecast to fall to $60 in 2022.

Regardless of gas prices, high levels of holiday travel are expected this weekend, with 43.6 million Americans forecast to travel by car, according to AAA. Just 32.5 million drivers did the same in 2020, for comparison, well below the count of 41.5 million reported a year earlier.

That tracks with what driver surveys show, according to National Association of Convenience Stores spokesperson Jeff Lenard. It's less about price, he said, "and more about obligation."

"So hopefully this won't inhibit people from taking their summer vacation, or weekend getaway," Lenard said. "Increased cost certainly is not something that the retailers want, nor does anybody driving want, but we're hopeful that there's enough optimism out there."