NEW YORK - The stunning collapse in oil markets accelerated Friday, sending a barrel of crude plunging below $78 as investors grow more pessimistic about resolving a mushrooming global economic crisis.
Oil hasn't been this cheap in 13 months — a rare silver lining for consumers amid a rapidly imploding financial landscape.
Crude prices have almost been cut in half since surging to a record near $150 barrel over the summer.
Energy experts believe prices could go even lower.
Friday's steep losses came as Wall Street capped its worst weekly drop ever with another wild session. The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 700 points earlier in the day before gyrating in and out of positive territory and later finishing the day down 128 points.
The frenzied trading weighed heavily on oil markets, sending prices plummeting more than $9 a barrel at one point.
"There's so much fear out there and that's really gripping the oil market. People are just afraid to hold a position so they're closing out and selling off," said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research in Winchester, Massachusetts.
Light, sweet crude for November delivery ended the day $8.89 lower at $77.70 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It was the lowest settlement price for a front-month crude contract since Sept. 10, 2007.
"As long as this financial crisis continues, we could see prices go down into the $60 range," Lynch said.
Oil has now lost 47 percent of its value since hitting a record $147.27 on July 11 as a deepening credit crisis sparked by the subprime mortgage fiasco wreaks havoc around the globe and drives down energy demand.
Investors have shrugged off an array of market-stabilizing efforts by world governments, including a $700 billion U.S. financial rescue plan, several bank bailouts and a coordinated interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve and central banks around the globe.
Underscoring Americans' waning appetite for fuel, a gallon of regular gasoline dropped 5.3 cents overnight to a new national average of $3.35 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.
Prices dipped below $3 a gallon on average in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. If crude keeps falling, the rest of country should see sub-$3 gasoline in the next few weeks if not sooner, experts say.
Oil market traders got more proof that energy demand is falling away across the globe.
The International Energy Agency on Friday cut its global oil demand forecasts for this year and 2009, pointing to the worsening economic conditions and the tight credit supply.
The Paris-based energy watchdog cut its forecast for oil demand this year by 240,000 barrels per day, and slashed its 2009 forecast by 440,000 barrels per day. The IEA now expects global oil demand to total 86.5 million barrels per day this year and 87.2 million barrels per day next year.
"The fundamental game for oil has changed. In the last decade, oil went up because of strong global economic growth. That story for the near term is over, so everybody has to re-evaluate," said Phil Flynn, energy analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.
OPEC signaled it may tighten output to put a floor under falling prices, but it didn't seem to matter.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said Thursday it will hold a special meeting Nov. 18 to discuss how the economic crisis is affecting oil prices. The head of Libya's national oil company, Shukri Ghanem, called on oil producing nations to cut output.
Many doubt that an OPEC cut would reverse the extreme downward momentum on oil. OPEC's decision last month to cut production by 520,000 barrels a day did little to stop the losses.
Flynn said another output cut "may actually accelerate the slide."
"What's driving this market right now is fear of demand destruction and lack of credit," he said. "If you can't borrow money to buy crude, then demand falls more and so do prices."
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures lost 20.86 cents to settle at $2.21 a gallon, while gasoline futures fell 22.03 cents to settle at $1.807 a gallon. Natural gas futures fell 29 cents to settle at $6.535 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, November Brent crude lost $8.57 to settle at $74.09 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.