Gas prices have surged to historic levels in Massachusetts amid uncertainty surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and possible sanctions on the Russian oil supply. The average cost for regular unleaded gasoline in Massachusetts hit $4.16 per gallon on Monday — the highest price ever recorded in the state for regular unleaded gasoline according to Mary Maguire, spokesperson for Massachusetts AAA Northeast. The last time we saw $4 per gallon, Maguire said, was back in July 2008 during the Great Recession.

The average price of unleaded regular gasoline is up by $0.54 over last week, $0.72 over last month and $1.48 higher than this time last year, when the cost per gallon was $2.68. And while the costs at the pump are surging across the country, Massachusetts’ average gas price is $0.10 higher than the national average.

As the crisis unfolds, prices are likely to continue rising. We spoke with a few experts to learn where we might go from here — and to offer suggestions for how to stretch each gallon in the meantime.

What is the cause of the surge?

When a major global oil producer is involved in a conflict, it sends shockwaves through the oil and gasoline markets — and that translates to higher prices at the pump. That's exactly what's happening right now, Maguire said, as oil and gas markets react to the volatility of the situation between Russia and Ukraine.

As the United States and NATO debate whether to impose sanctions on the Russian oil and gas industry, she said we will continue to see a significant rise in prices for those goods.

How long will it last? How high will prices go?

Maguire said Americans are facing a “double whammy": a price spike occurring at the same time as increased demand for travel. As pandemic restrictions ease, the weather improves and gatherings such as graduations, barbecues and other celebrations resume, more people are getting back in their cars to travel.

“The $0.45 increase in gas prices here in the U.S. over the past seven days amounts to the single largest increase since AAA has tracked domestic gas prices," Maguire said, adding that, "the negative impact of these explosive prices on American consumers will only increase in the near term."

Back in 2008, when economic growth outpaced oil production, prices rose to $145 a barrel. Right now, we’re seeing approximately $130 a barrel. Maguire said that as crude oil prices rise, so do prices at the pump.

According to Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist, the American people’s willingness to impose sanctions and support a U.S. policy could be key as to whether gas prices keep increasing.

During World War II, he said, people made personal sacrifices like taking the bus instead of driving or carpooling in order to support U.S. sanctions against Germany. But, McKibben said, Americans now are perhaps too “pampered” to make those kinds of changes in their daily lives. McKibben reflected on posters from World War II that had the tagline, “When you drive alone, you drive with Hitler.” He said the 3% to 4% of people driving electric vehicles could help make a difference by carpooling with other people.

Is there support for the U.S. imposing sanctions on Russian oil?

The oil market is a bull market with multiple sources of supply, including OPEC and Russia, according to Massachusetts Congressman Jake Auchincloss, who represents the 4th Congressional District.

It’s hard to pinpoint a direct cause and effect with so many sources in a global market of supply and demand, Auchincloss said. The surge in gasoline affects everyone’s wallet. He added, “this increase really pinches people at the kitchen table. It is taking a big bite out of wage gains that we have seen, and it's forcing people to make painful tradeoffs in how they consume.”

Since oil is the most important export from Russia, Auchincloss said, the U.S. needs to cut off Vladimir Putin from the fossil fuel industry.

“I think this is going to turbocharge our transition to a clean energy economy,” Auchincloss said. This crisis will thrust Europe’s transition to energy independence, he added, and “just as we used these sanctions to punish and isolate Russia, we should also be sure to use the sanctions as an off-ramp.” Meaning, if the sanctions work and Putin ceases the war, the end result would protect Ukrainian civilians.

“That’s our primary objective to stop the violence and suffering,” Auchincloss added.

Eighty percent of Americans who participated in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said they support the U.S. no longer buying Russian oil, the majority of whom said it would be worth paying more at the pump to support another democratic country.

Can we do anything to slow or stop rising prices?

AAA recommends these fuel-saving tips:

  • Use regular gas instead of premium. Opting for premium gas when your car doesn’t require it will not improve fuel economy, but it will cost you more money.
  • Shop around to find the best gas price in your area.
  • Utilize points and rewards programs at places such as Costco, BJ's and Stop and Shop
  • Keep your vehicle in top shape with routine inspections and make sure your tires are properly inflated.
  • Combine errands into a single trip. You can map your route ahead of time to minimize unnecessary turnarounds and backtracking.
  • Drive slower on highways. Fuel economy peaks at around 50 mph on most cars, then drops off as speeds increase. Reducing highway speeds by 5 to 10 mph can increase fuel economy by as much as 14%.
  • Avoid excessive idling. A car engine that idles for long periods consumes more fuel than a warm engine that needs fuel to restart.
  • Where safe to do so, shut off your engine if you will be stopped for more than a minute.
  • Use "fast pass" or “express” toll lanes to avoid unnecessary stops and slowdowns.
  • Avoid peak traffic times when you are able to plan around them.
  • Anticipate road conditions: watch the traffic ahead and "time" stoplights to maintain momentum and avoid unnecessary stop and go.