With an increase in international oil production as a backdrop, the Energy Department today dramatically revised its forecast for summer gasoline prices. The agency said prices should peak later this month and begin dropping sometime in May, averaging about $1.46 a gallon throughout the summer.
And there’s even more good news: Gasoline prices may dip lower still by fall, according to the agency. Prices may fall to a national average of $1.39 after Labor Day, the department’s Energy Information Administration said in its revised short-term forecast. “By then I expect we will have started to see some economic growth deterioration and I think from there we probably will see demand start to come under some pressure,” said Peter Beutel, president of Cameron Hanover, an energy risk management firm in Connecticut. “So, I think we probably will see prices closer to $1.30 or maybe even $1.25.”
Just a month ago, the Energy Department said even with increased oil production, gasoline prices were expected to soar to a national average of as much as $1.80 a gallon and likely reach $2 a gallon in some places by July. So what’s changed between now and then? A key international oil meeting in Vienna, Austria.
The EIA in its latest forecast assumed additional oil would begin hitting the U.S. market by June as a result of a decision March 28 by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC agreed to boost production by as much as 1.7 million barrels a day.Other non-OPEC producers also have said they would increase production. And production increases mean refilled petroleum stocks and lower prices for oil products including gasoline. ”We are more optimistic today. Some of the tightening of the market has improved,” said EIA Administrator Jay Hakes.
Nationally, the average cost of regular grade gasoline was $1.52 a gallon in March, with the average for all grades, including premium, a nickel higher, the agency said. The agency’s latest revision is still 25 percent higher than summer prices a year ago. The average motorist is expected to pay about $170 more for gasoline this summer than last, according to the EIA. Additionally, according to the new forecast, gasoline stocks are likely to remain at the lower end of the normal range through the summer.
Worries about stocks aside, the latest gas price revision is good news for the Clinton administration that has been fretting over the prospects of gasoline prices soaring to $2 a gallon this summer and additional potential shortages. But Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said repeatedly that with the additional oil production from OPEC and other producers, prices should gradually recede.
The department’s latest price forecast also assumes no refining problems with refineries running at nearly 97 percent capacity through the summer. If there are refinery shutdowns, prices would spike higher, the agency said. And although summer gasoline prices will be 25 percent higher than last year, demand is expected to remain strong, exceeding summer demand a year ago. The agency predicts refiners should have no trouble meeting the increase, barring any major refinery shutdowns. The report also predicted that crude oil prices will continue to drop for the remainder of the year, assuming continued increases in world production.