Gasoline continues plunge; crude tumbles below $60

By: AP
By: AP

HOUSTON (AP) -- Retail gasoline prices dipped for a 17th week since July 4, falling below $2 a gallon in a number of states and approaching $1.50 at some service stations. The price of crude fell again too, hitting a 20-month low.

While consumers, worried about a weak job market and slumping investments, are grateful for the price relief, economic reports increasingly suggest they're hanging onto whatever savings they see at the pump.

Filling up her 2008 Toyota Highlander for $1.89 a gallon in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, dental hygienist Shelly Dalamaggas said even when gasoline was $4 just a few months ago, there was little choice but to pay and cut spending elsewhere.

"When you have to go to work, you have to go work," said Dalamaggas, who has two children, ages 9 and 13. "When you have to take your kids places, you have to take them places. You do what you have to do to cut back in other places."

Retail gasoline prices fell overnight to a national average of $2.22 a gallon, dragged down by the falling price of crude, which now costs 60 percent less per barrel than it did in mid-July. The average price for regular unleaded gasoline has fallen nearly 32 percent in the last month.

Light, sweet crude for December delivery fell $3.08 to settle at $59.33 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest closing price since March 2007. Prices had dipped a dollar below that earlier in the day.

The latest decline comes two days ahead of a report from the International Energy Agency, which some analysts expect will cut its 2009 oil demand forecast for the third consecutive month.

Sharp swings in crude prices are taking place almost daily on the New York trading floor.

While the Nymex contract is now trading near first-half 2007 prices, the difference then between daily highs and lows was around $1.50 a barrel. Now, the average daily range is around $5.50 a barrel, with recent daily peaks at $9.50, said analyst Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland.

The overall trend for oil and gasoline prices, at least for now, is down.

Investors have grown increasingly leery about the swooning U.S. economy, which faces its worst recession in decades.

Industry analysts had expected China and India to continue buying crude if the U.S. and other western nations went into recession, but the booming economies of Asia have begun to show signs of fatigue.

Some forecasts had called for China's gross domestic product to grow 10 percent next year. More recent forecasts have it closer to 6 percent, the firm Cameron Hanover said in a report Tuesday.

A $586 billion stimulus package in China boosted markets globally early Monday, but those gains fizzled quickly and a sell-off that began in the U.S. continued in Asia and Europe.

On Tuesday, the Dow sank more than 250 points after homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc. and Starbucks Corp. gave investors more evidence the housing market and consumer spending are getting weaker.

Toll Brothers said fourth-quarter revenue fell 41 percent from the year-ago period, while Starbucks reported lower sales across the coffee chain, leading to profits that fell below analysts' expectations.

At the pump, gasoline fell again overnight, dipping 2 cents to a national average of $2.22 for a gallon of regular unleaded, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. The average price could be headed to $2 a gallon nationally by year's end, AAA has said.

The price already has fallen well below $2 in some places. In Missouri, the Web site GasBuddy.com, where consumers post prices they spot, said a few stations in the Kansas City area were charging $1.61 for regular. Drivers were paying only slightly higher in parts of Oklahoma, Iowa, Ohio and Texas.

Oil prices fell despite signs that OPEC members are going ahead with production cuts agreed to at an emergency meeting in Vienna, Austria, last month. Many analysts are expecting another cut by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which will meet Dec. 17 in Oran, Algeria.

The prime minister of Qatar said Tuesday that "fair" oil prices of between $70 to $90 per barrel would ensure that expensive oil exploration could continue, avoiding rapid price surges in the future.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani said that while oil prices below $70 a barrel may seem like a gift to consumers, it could trigger price spikes in the near future when demand picks up.

But for now it is waning energy demand, not the supply controlled by OPEC, that is dominating crude prices.

Events that earlier this year threatened to cut off supply in oil producing nations no longer appear to have the power to send prices upward.

Prices this week fell even as militants in Nigeria resumed attacks on the country's oil installations. The military said it killed eight people while guarding a facility in the oil-rich south of the country.

Militants frequently attack oil facilities, seeking to hobble Africa's biggest petroleum industry and force Nigeria's federal government to send more oil funds to the southern states where the crude is pumped.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell 7.66 cents to settle at $1.9290 a gallon, while gasoline prices dropped 6.2 cents to settle at $1.3059 a gallon. Natural gas for December delivery tumbled 84.3 cents to settle at $6.71 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, December Brent crude tumbled $3.37 to $55.71 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

Associated Press writers Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, Alex Kennedy in Singapore and David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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