Little joy at slide in gasoline

Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute in SMU's Cox School of Business, says there is little joy to be realized from the dropping price of gasoline.

By Ronald D. White
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

With stocks getting hammered and banks needing bailouts, consumers still had something to celebrate Monday. Pump prices are sliding and soon may drop below $3 a gallon nationally, pulled down by an oil-price crash that could take crude as low as $60 a barrel by the end of the year, an analyst said.

On Monday, light, sweet crude for November delivery fell as low as $87.56 on the New York Mercantile Exchange before settling at $87.81 a barrel, down $6.07, or 6.4%. Oil last closed below $90 on Feb. 7 and has plummeted 40% from the intraday record of $147.27 reached on July 11.

Retail gasoline prices are moving lower too, but not as far or as fast.

The price of a gallon of self-serve regular gas fell 14.8 cents nationally to $3.484 and 6.9 cents to $3.601 in California, according to the Energy Department's weekly survey of filling stations. Analysts said that the prices would have dropped even more sharply if not for Hurricane Ike's interruption of oil production and fuel refining.

But consumers are hurting so much they may barely notice the price relief. . .

In the past, when a sharp drop in fuel prices followed a major upward surge, Americans returned to at least some of their old driving habits. They were more likely to drive their cars instead of taking buses or trains and to run individual errands rather than wait until they could accomplish more in a single trip, said Bruce Bullock, executive director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

But this may be the first time when there are so many other drains on consumer confidence and spending that there might be little, if any, rebound in driving habits.

"The average family is looking for every penny they can get," Bullock said. "The credit crisis will have an impact too, because a lot of people buy gasoline with credit cards. As disposable income shrinks, people will be purchasing less, and that includes gasoline."

Read the full story.