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LI gas prices likely to stay low amid oil glut

A customer gasses up at an East Norwich

A customer gasses up at an East Norwich station offering regular for less than $2 a gallon on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Long Island drivers and businesses can expect gasoline and heating oil to be relatively inexpensive for the rest of the year, as a worldwide glut of crude oil weighs heavily on prices.

The result is a boost to disposable income for Long Islanders who have struggled in the wake of the steep recession that officially ended in 2009.

But the collapse in oil prices has rattled Wall Street, as energy company profits plummet and analysts worry that low energy prices signal a weak world economy. The Dow Jones industrial average has fallen by about 1,272 points, or 7.3 percent, in the past three months.

So, while Long Islanders are saving money on gasoline, their 401(k)s and other stock investments are losing value, at least on paper. Economists say there can be a “wealth effect” on spending; in this case, consumers may cut back on spending if their wealth declines.

That nervousness about shrinking portfolios could be a reason consumers nationally have lately increased their savings or paid off debts. The U.S. Department of Commerce said the personal saving rate — as a percentage of disposable personal income — was 5.5 percent in December, up from 5.3 percent in November.

Some of Islanders’ gasoline bonanza may also be saved, though local data on savings rates aren’t available.

No matter what Long Islanders are doing with the extra money, it’s welcome, experts say.

“This recovery has been characterized as one where wages are stagnant, but the decline in energy prices acts as an increase in income,” said chief economist John Rizzo of the Long Island Association, a business group. Low energy prices are “certainly a positive thing for the consumer.”

While prices may still rise and fall with seasonal demand — higher in summer, lower in winter — many analysts say a sustained increase might not begin until 2017. A few, though, forecast gasoline prices will rise moderately by the end of this year.

Behind the plunge in prices is the surplus of oil and natural gas. The abundance stems from new production in the United States, continued strong output by OPEC nations and other oil exporters, and weak demand in troubled economies in Europe and China.

The average cash price of regular gasoline on Long Island has fallen from a recent peak of $4.036 a gallon in July 2014 to to $1.996 Friday, the AAA said. That’s the first time the Island average has been below $2 since Jan. 30, 2009.

Every $1 decline in gas prices translates to a savings of more than $700 a year for a vehicle averaging 20 miles per gallon and driven 15,000 miles annually.

Heating oil and natural gas prices also have dropped.

Home heating oil averaged $2.38 a gallon Monday on Long Island, the most recent data. That’s about 70 cents less than a year earlier, the state Energy Research and Development Authority said, and represents an annualized savings of $560 for an average home using 800 gallons a year. The new figure is the lowest since the winter of 2004-2005, the authority said.

Heating oil reached a record high average of $4.47 a gallon on Long Island just two years ago — on Feb. 10, 2014.

National Grid forecast a 9.1 percent decline from last year, to $750, in billing for a typical residential customer using natural gas during the November to March heating season, assuming a normal winter.

Lower oil and natural gas prices also have helped control increases in the costs of electricity generated from those fuels. While LIPA and PSEG Long Island electricity delivery rates are increasing just over 7 percent in the next three years, the power supply portion of bills has recently hit record-low levels, due in large part to low prices for natural gas, which generates most of Long Island’s electricity.

While there’s no hard data on what Long Islanders are doing with the money saved on fuels, they may be spending at least some of it. Sales tax receipts in 2015 rose by 1.2 percent in Nassau County last year over 2014, according to the county comptroller, and by about 0.9 percent in Suffolk County, according to the county executive’s office. The spending gains were large enough to more than offset lower sales tax receipts by the counties for gasoline because of its lower price.

In comparison, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance, Suffolk’s sales tax receipts rose 1.2 percent from 2013 to 2014 — and Nassau’s fell by 4.2 percent that year.

Many businesses, meanwhile, are also benefiting from lower energy costs, Rizzo said.

Richard Shea, president of Shea Trucking of Farmingdale, which services New York, New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania, said he purchases about 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year for his 28 trucks, so a $1 decline in diesel fuel since last year meant considerable savings.

Those savings have gone to cover other expenses.

“The price of fuel is terrific,” Shea said, “but tolls have eaten up any fuel savings.” Rising tolls now amount to $42,000 a month, he said — an average of $130 to $150 for each round trip by a vehicle over a toll bridge.

Eventually, the cost of a barrel of oil will rise, analysts said. Low prices are discouraging new exploration for, and production of, crude oil and natural gas. Demand for gasoline and other energy products is expected to slowly recover in troubled international economies.

“I think you can expect low prices to be with us for all of 2016,” said Andy Lipow, president of the Houston consulting company Lipow Oil Associates LLC.

In a forecast Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy said U.S. crude probably will average about $38 a barrel this year and $50 next year. It said gasoline would average $1.98 a gallon nationally this year — Long Island prices usually are higher — and $2.21 a gallon next year.

Financial analysts surveyed in early February by Bloomberg estimated that U.S. crude oil, now selling for less than $30 a barrel, could rise by year’s end to about $46 as the worldwide glut of oil lessens.

To put those prices into perspective, the U.S. benchmark grade of crude oil was selling for $107.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange at its recent peak on June 20, 2014. Six years earlier it had settled at $145.31 a barrel — a record that still stands.

The Long Island record for regular gas in the AAA’s daily survey was $4.346 a gallon, on July 8, 2008.

Lipow thinks pump prices could fall in coming weeks, but he and other experts say that, barring a dramatic further collapse in crude prices, drivers can expect the usual seasonal increase in pump prices starting in March, as better weather encourages more driving and as more expensive summer-grade gas reaches pumps.

Tom Finlon, the director of Energy Analytics Group Ltd. of Jupiter, Florida, a trade adviser to a hedge fund, thinks motorists can expect an increase of 25 to 30 cents a gallon by the end of May.

Finlon said the world is producing 2 million barrels a day more crude oil than it is consuming — or 99 million barrels a day — and that it will take a long time to whittle away at that oversupply.

An agreement among oil producers to cut production could trigger a more rapid price rise. Two weeks ago, rumors of upcoming talks between Russia, a big exporter, and the 12-member OPEC cartel to slow output boosted U.S. crude futures, which had fallen to a low of $26.68 a barrel Jan. 20, to levels above $30. U.S. crude settled at $26.21 on Thursday.

On Friday, oil futures surged to $29.44 on a second media report in recent days quoting United Arab Emirates’ energy minister saying OPEC was willing to cooperate on a cut.

So far, though, nobody, including OPEC’s dominant country, Saudi Arabia, wants to lose market share by pumping less oil.

“A major producer is going to have to blink,” said Finlon.

Carl Larry, the Houston-based director of oil and gas for the consulting company Frost & Sullivan, thinks an agreement will have to be reached if major producers are to avoid financial collapse. “These prices can’t last forever without a crushing effect on these economies,” he said.

He foresees crude at about $50 by the end of the year.

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