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Cheap Gas? For How Long?


My local "drug" dealer, also known as Sonny's Sunoco, as regular readers may recall, likes to play roulette with prices. It's not unusual for me to see the numbers on his display board switch three or four times a day, apparently depending upon how his personal trading is going on the spot market.

So I was surprised to see the figures hold steady, this weekend, at $3.79 a gallon of regular, more than 40 cents below the peak price he was demanding of us petrol junkies just a month before. All across the country, the AAA reports, prices are falling, and are now averaging barely $4 a gallon.

(Of course, who would have thought we'd breathe a collective sigh of relief when fuel prices were "only" $4?)

Why the sudden dip? No, it's not because the Saudis are suddenly feeling guilty, nor is it the result of a sudden sense of social responsibility in the ExxonMobil boardroom. It's apparently nothing more than a sign that Adam Smith was right. The invisible hand of the market seems to be working.

As fuel prices soared, in recent months, Americans began cutting back on their driving, whether by carpooling, cutting out unnecessary trips, switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles, or canceling their cross-country vacations. Whatever the reason, the nation sucked down 2.4 percent less fuel during the previous four weeks than it did during the same period in 2007. And that's helped drive down the price of crude by more than $20 a barrel since its July 3 peak of $145.31 - to a Friday close of $123.26.

Of course, that seemingly direct link between fuel consumption and fuel prices could work against us, if motorists wind up driving more now that fuel is, ahem, affordable again. Relatively, anyway. What was $72, on average, in 2007, is still expected to be $127 a barrel in 2008, and $133 next year, according to the energy Information Administration.

But unlike years past, when the laws of supply and demand were pretty much directly impacted by what happens on U.S. shores, the situation has changed dramatically in recent years, as more and more of the emerging world discovers the automobile.

China has become the world's third-largest motor vehicle market, behind only Japan and the U.S., and with millions more cars and trucks taking to the road each year, its appetite for petroleum has soared. The same thing is happening in India, Russia, and, well, much of the world. But while usage is soaring, supply has held relatively steady.

The situation is compounded, warns an article in today's New York Times, by the fact that consumers in many of these emerging markets aren't actually feeling the real pain of petroleum's record run-up. Indonesia, for example, is spending 4 percent of its entire economic output in the form of fuel subsidies, helping maintain gasoline prices of around $2.30 a gallon. In Malaysia, the subsidies amount to 7.5 percent of economic output.

China is spending about $40 billion to subsidize fuel costs, though it did allow gasoline prices to rise significantly on June 21. As the Times notes, that immediately drove down world oil prices by a whopping $4 a barrel. There's the possibility of still further increases in Chinese gasoline prices after the upcoming Olympics. Observers expect the government to wait rather than risk protests that could be picked up by the world's media, descending on Beijing.

While subsidies might ease the burden on third-world consumers, the problem is that low prices do the same thing, in places like China and India, that cheap gas did in America, it encourages consumption and limits the viability of conservation. And with little growth in global petroleum supplies, the fast-rising demand from these markets will continue to push up the cost of crude, even if Americans maintain their newfound focus on fuel efficiency.
 
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