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Gas prices continued to fall last week, despite shutdown and potential U.S. default

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Gas prices continued their downward movement in the past week, despite a two-week old partial government shutdown and a looming threat of default that has yet to rattle commodities markets.

Average retail gasoline prices fell 3.3 cents per gallon to an average of $3.17, according to GasBuddy's survey of 3,525 outlets in New Jersey. The current price is 54 cents lower than last year at this time and 25 cents per gallon less than a month ago, according to the gas-tracking website.

AAA notes similar trends, listing the New Jersey average at $3.22 a gallon, down from $3.79 one year ago. The decline coincides with a falling national average now at $3.35, down 46 cents from one year ago, according to AAA. That represents the largest year-over-year drop since October 2009.

Gasbuddy.com senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said a calm hurricane season and reduced tension in Syria have aided the decline, which normally occurs each autumn as refineries switch to less expensive blends of winter fuel and demand drops.

Less clear is how long current trends will last. DeHaan said the unresolved fiscal showdown in Congress is a big source of uncertainty.

To date, the partial shutdown hasn't shaken financial markets much, but if the United States were to default on interest payments, DeHaan said that could create significant disturbance because it would be the first time in history such a default occurred.

"That would have repercussions for the stock market, repercussions for the oil prices," DeHaan said. "Until then, it's not really in the front seat. It could be flung into the front seat if we hit default."

The Treasury Department has said it will begin running low on income to cover its bills beginning Thursday unless Congress renews its borrowing authority.

Potential weather disruptions through November are another variable, DeHaan said, though hurricane season has been calm so far.

On a supply and demand basis, the Energy Information Administration reports that oil inventories have reached a three-month high. AAA said most analysts predict that stocks of crude oil will continue to build in the coming weeks as refineries convert toward winter blends and crude demand drops.

Absent disruptions, AAA said the combination of flat demand, sufficient supply, and cheaper winter blends of gas suggest further declines. The agency says the national average could fall to $3.10 to $3.20 a gallon by Christmas, which would be the lowest since February 2011.

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