When it comes to lower gas and oil prices, should American consumers believe the hype?
AAA reports the national average of a gallon of gasoline dropped below $3.00 per gallon for the first time in nearly four years.
“The steep decline in gas prices has helped to make driving less expensive for the vast majority of Americans who use their car every day,” Bob Darbelnet, CEO of AAA, said in a press statement on Friday. “Many Americans are spending $10-$20 less to fill up the cars on every trip to the gas station compared to what they paid during the summer driving season.”
A report issued on Thursday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), meanwhile, took an in-depth look at some of the factors driving gasoline prices lower.
According to the EIA, America’s domestic oil production has grown from 5.6 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2011 to 7.4 million bbl/d last year. And the administration’s short-term energy outlook is projecting continued “rapid production growth” for this year and 2015 — with the projected production forecast for 2015 averaging 9.5 million bbl/d.
This all sounds like great news, but the EIA also acknowledges that the “pace and duration” of this oil production boom remains uncertain.
And when it comes to gasoline prices, “I don’t think consumers are out of the woods,” says Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director for energy and sustainability at University of California, Davis.
“I think we could see very high gasoline prices again in the next couple of years if something went wrong in the Middle East, for example,” she tells CBS MoneyWatch. “So even though the trend line is positive, within that trend line there could be a pretty large blip.”
That being said, Jaffe is optimistic that the combination of the current historic levels of oil production, coupled with new and renewable energy technologies, will create cheaper, more dependable and more sustainable power supplies.
“The mistake that the (oil producing) guys in the Middle East made is that, when you have a $100 (per barrel) oil price, it behooves you to do R-and-D on every possible thing you can do to have energy,” she notes.
Jaffe believes that, once there’s a technology breakthrough regarding the efficiency and cost of battery storage, alternative energy sources like solar and wind power will come into their own as energy industries — to the point where some companies and communities might even take themselves off their local electrical grid and rely on their own “net zero” energy sources.
“Part of the reason that Google and Intel and Microsoft and all these companies have come up with these fantastic energy efficiency batteries, storage and off-grid energy solutions is because the utilities…couldn’t provide them with reliable electricity,” she adds. “So I think renewable energy, even though the oil industry doesn’t believe it, is going to continue to compete.”
And there are other factors — such as more energy-efficient vehicles, a generational turning away from owning cars and the advancement of technologies like social media — which are all helping to keep gas prices lower, as well.
Jaffe says the downward trend of oil and gas prices should probably continue, for now. But she also advises consumers to pay more attention to international news.
“Because oil is geopolitical, you can never say that consumers don’t have to worry about it,” she notes. “My opinion is, barring a major catastrophe in the Middle East, oil will drop to $50 a barrel, and gasoline prices are going to get even lower than they are now.”
And as for what dramatically lower oil prices might mean for the oil-producing countries of OPEC, the cartel “has itself to blame,” Jaffe says, “because they held the price up, artificially high, for too long, and allowed all these competitive forces to put them out of business.”