Northern Ireland motorists could be paying £1.50 a litre for petrol by the end of the summer, it was warned today.
Market analysts have made the worrying prediction after the average price of fuel - which has soared by over 20% in the past year - hit an all-time high last Friday.
Figures from the AA April Fuel report show the cost of petrol has soared (by 1.3p) to 108.5p on average, which is higher than anywhere else in the UK bar London (108.7p).
Diesel, meanwhile, has rocketed (by 3.16p) to an average price of 117.8p, giving Northern Ireland the third most expensive forecourts nationwide.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph today, Brendan McLoughlin, managing director of PetrolPrices.com, warned drivers to fasten their financial seatbelts.
"We predicted in February that petrol would hit £1.50 a litre this year, but if these conditions continue we're likely to hit £1.50 a litre by September," he said.
This equates to over £6.80 a gallon.
"Already, the most expensive petrol in the UK is costing 120p a litre, and diesel 127.9p a litre.
"As Northern Ireland is normally one of the most expensive regions, we expect to be seeing these prices in some forecourts before long."
Statistics show that, compared to this time last year - when petrol cost 92.68p per litre - the average price is now 15.38p higher.
In real terms, motorists must fork out an extra £7.69 to refill a typical 50-litre fuel tank.
The hike also means that a family with two cars can expect to spend £32.97 more each month for petrol.
On the diesel front, price is rising twice as fast as petrol, with the cost difference now standing at 9.35p, compared with last month's 7.49p differential.
Also, the pre-tax cost of diesel has almost doubled over the past three years - from 25p per litre in January 2005 to 49.6p.
Industry experts claim the major driving force behind these
hikes is the cost of crude oil - which surged to $$112.87 a barrel on the world commodity markets on Tuesday.
Added to that the impact on supply of European refinery maintenance problems helps explain why prices are soaring.
Luke Bosdett, a spokesman for the AA public affairs unit, said UK motorists are now spending more then £10.2m extra on fuel each day compared to last year.
But although Northern Ireland is among the most expensive regions for fuel, Mr Bosdett said he didn't foresee petrol prices rising to £1.50 per litre in 2008.
"I really don't think prices are going to get as high as that," he said.
"But we estimate that petrol in rural areas will cost around £1.20 a litre."
He added that the cost of diesel was more difficult to forecast.
"I don't think anybody can predict where diesel is going, as supply is even tighter," he said.
Research carried out by the Belfast Telegraph on PetrolPrices.com revealed that the cost of fuel varies considerably across the province, with some filling stations even charging a staggering 11p more than their counterparts.
At the time of writing, the most expensive petrol in Belfast cost 110.9p, with the cheapest 105.9p. Diesel, meanwhile, was as dear as 120.9p at some city centre filling stations, with the least expensive outlet charging 114.9p.
A straw poll of different locations on the website also showed that geography plays a huge role in setting costs.
In Londonderry, for example, forecourts were charging a staggering 119.9p a litre for petrol, compared with 114p in Newry, 111.9p in Enniskillen, 109.9 in Omagh and 108.9p in Armagh and Coleraine.
Meanwhile diesel cost an incredible 125.4p at some filling stations in the Newry area, while drivers were paying 123.9p in Enniskillen and 121.9p in Derry.
In Omagh and Coleraine, however, prices were a little lower, at 119.9p, with motorists in Armagh forking out 117.9p.
Mr Bosdett praised the Petrol Prices.com website, saying it provided an invaluable service for consumers, but he warned motorists not to go too far out of their way.
"You shouldn't drive more than 2km off the beaten track or you waste the savings," he said.
Fuel increases - coupled with hikes in mortgage, energy and grocery bills - have, however, made consumers more likely to consider their options and count the pennies.
"Petrol prices are going up relentlessly," added Mr Bosdett.
"In particular, people on low incomes and living in rural areas are feeling the pinch and those drivers are absorbing the extra costs and cutting back elsewhere."
A Consumer Council spokeswoman said: "Shopping around and comparing petrol prices will ensure that you are getting the best deals and should make your money go that bit further."