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At the Vicky Food Mart, Yolanda Sanford fills her car with a smile. "I'm glad gas prices are lower. It's affordable," Sanford said.
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When Tanner Swafford turned 16 back in 2008, he could barely afford his new driving privileges.

The now-rising junior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga remembers gas hitting all-time highs that year, topping $4 a gallon at one point, and reaching deep into his shallow pockets, lined only with a part-time grocery store wage.

"All that stuff that was going on in the world, especially with our country affecting it, it was like 'Oh my gosh. Gas is $5, nearly, a gallon," he said Monday. "I could barely afford that."

So this is a welcome change: Experts believe gasoline prices could fall below $2 a gallon in Chattanooga as early as next week.

Swafford already has the lowest gas price in his neighborhood pegged -- $2.42 at a station near his house, which is already a relief.

But "I hope it would keep on dropping," he said. "I mean, $2, that'd be so awesome."

Fred Rozell, director of retail pricing at Oil Price Information Service, said Monday that "robust" oil supplies and steady demand have driven oil and gas prices down, resulting in cheaper consumer fuel.

Rozell said that, as a result, some gas pumps around the Southeast likely will hit $1.99 and $1.98 per gallon for regular gas before Christmas, and that may not even be the bottom. Gas could get cheaper all month and finally bottom out sometime in January.

Tennessee, and Chattanooga in particular, has some of the cheapest gas in the country, according to GasBuddy.com.

National average gas prices haven't dipped below $2 a gallon since spring 2009. The year before, the U.S. hit record-high gas prices at $4.11 a gallon in the summer but ended the year with $1.50-a-gallon fuel in some areas.

"Typically this time of year, you do see prices drop, but this isn't your garden-variety fall drop in prices," Rozell said. "This has to do with global economics and market conditions that are pushing the price down."

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided last week to keep churning out 30 million barrels of oil a day, despite ample supplies already feeding the market.

It's much cheaper for most of OPEC's member nations to produce oil compared to the U.S., Rozell said, so some fuel economists believe the 12-member group is trying to squeeze the U.S. on its oil profits.

Regardless, American consumers are reaping the immediate benefit of oil geopolitics. Gas prices have fallen for 68 days straight, the longest streak since 2008.

Monday, members-only vendors Costco and Sam's Club had the lowest gas prices in town, with regular fuel at $2.37 a gallon.

Other stations were close behind with regular gas largely in the $2.40-a-gallon range.

Don Lindsey, Tennessee public affairs director for AAA, said Monday that there's no way to know the driving forces behind varying station-to-station and state-to-state gas prices.

"What it all boils down to, frankly, is that if [vendors] can sell it for a particular price, they're going to sell it for that price," he said.

Going into the rest of this month, "it's not out of the question" that gas will be sold for less than $2 a gallon at Southeastern gas stations, Lindsey added.

"It wouldn't be surprising, let me put it that way," he said.

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But he added that it's unlikely any state will see a $2-a-gallon average, because it would require drastic dips across the board.

Both Lindsey and Rozell said gas prices probably will keep falling through December, during the Christmas season and into January.

Gas prices traditionally fall at the end of the year and begin climbing again in January and February, when summer blends go into production.

Rozell said Monday that looking ahead, he expects 2015 pump prices to stay below 2014 averages.

"I think the highs will be lower and the lows will be lower," he said, predicting $3.15- to $3.20-a-gallon peaks.

But many variables come into play when talking about gas prices.

"People said we'd never see $2-a-gallon gasoline a few years ago," Rozell said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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