NEW YORK - Oil and gasoline prices finally hit the brakes in May.
After surging to the highest since 2008, oil dropped 10 percent for the month, the biggest monthly decline in a year. Pump prices slipped nearly 4 percent.
The May decline gave consumers and businesses a bit of a breather from high fuel prices, though oil was climbing again as the month ended. Here's a look at how commodities fared in May, and where they might be headed:
Oil. Crude futures dropped early in May as a growing number of industry and government reports showed plentiful supplies and falling demand. The dollar grew stronger against other currencies during the month, and that helped push oil lower as well. Oil is priced in dollars and becomes less attractive to buyers with foreign currency as the dollar gets stronger.
In May 2010, oil dropped about 17 percent, from just under $83 a barrel to $68, for similar reasons.
On Tuesday the dollar weakened and helped oil recover some lost ground. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rose $2.11 to settle at $102.70 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That's down from a high of $113.93 per barrel at the end of April.
Oil prices may climb further soon. The world is consuming more oil than ever, and the thirst for oil in China and other emerging economies will mean growing demand, analysts say.
Retail gasoline. The national average for a gallon of regular gas peaked at $3.9845 in the first week of May before sliding 20.5 cents per gallon by the end of the month. Prices were down for the 19th day in a row Tuesday, to $3.78 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express, and Oil Price Information Service.
Gas prices almost always level off in summer as refineries crank up production and replenish supplies around the country. Refineries began to produce more gasoline toward the end of May after some were sidelined by unexpected problems caused by power outages and flooding. Pump prices were already falling by then because of lower oil prices. In addition, people were driving less and demand was down with the price of gas about $4 a gallon in most of the country.
The slump in oil helped gasoline fall sooner this year than previously.
Natural gas. Prices, which have hovered around the same level since the beginning of 2009 with plenty of gas available to meet demand, have risen recently as U.S. supplies dropped below the five-year average. The July contract gained 14.8 cents to $4.666 per 1,000 cubic feet Tuesday.
Raymond James analyst J. Marshall Adkins said natural gas supplies declined as increased scrutiny of nuclear plants after the disaster in Japan forced utilities to rely more on natural gas-burning generators. Adkins doesn't expect that to last. He says natural gas is headed for a late-summer collapse back to about $3.75 per 1,000 cubic feet.