Two weeks ago, we explained why we believe low oil prices are here to stay. Today, we lay out our expectations for the energy prices that consumers can expect to pay this winter. The bottom line: Trips to the gas station and winter heating bills should be bearable for most folks during the cold-weather months.
Pump Prices: Under Control
At $2.04 per gallon, the national average price of regular unleaded gasoline probably can’t fall too much further. But considering it’s down about 75 cents per gallon from this time last year, most drivers probably won’t complain. Though we think the national average will probably bottom out around $2 per gallon, a big rebound looks unlikely. Figure on regular unleaded averaging in the low-$2 range until midwinter, before prices start climbing in anticipation of the spring travel season and as refiners begin to switch over from making winter-blend gas to the summer variety (which costs a bit more to make).
Even the run-up we expect to begin in late winter or early spring should be tame, with regular unleaded climbing to about $2.50 per gallon or so by the time warm weather returns. Expect a similar path for diesel, with the current average price of $2.42 per gallon slipping below $2.40 before gradually trending higher over the course of the winter and reaching about $2.75 during early spring.
Heating Fuels: Abundant
Whether you heat your home or business with heating oil, propane or natural gas, you’ll benefit from ample supplies that should ward off any big price spikes this winter. Stockpiles of propane are at a record high and could even keep growing in coming weeks. Supplies of distillates, which include both diesel fuel and heating oil, are plentiful both in the Northeast (where most heating oil customers reside) and in Europe (where oil is a widely used heating fuel).
While we expect both propane and heating oil prices to gradually creep up over the course of the winter, the prices users pay should average lower than last winter. For propane, figure on about 15 cents per gallon less; for heating oil, about 50 cents per gallon less. (But note that regional prices can vary widely because of supply chain factors.)
Natural gas storage facilities are brimming. The Department of Energy reports that gas held in underground storage now stands at 4 trillion cubic feet, the most on record. That glut and the outlook for a mild winter in much of the country has sent benchmark gas prices down, and end users are also paying less for natural gas than they did a year ago. That should continue through winter, welcome news for the roughly half of households that heat with natural gas.
Electric Rates: Leveling Off
After declining in the aftermath of the Great Recession, electric rates rose steadily each year after 2012. But that trend is now in reverse, with utilities that burn an increasing amount of natural gas to generate power passing along the savings from cheap gas to ratepayers. We look for commercial and industrial customers to pay slightly less on average for power this winter than they did during the comparable period a year ago. Residential rates, which had been climbing fastest, should hold flat.
The Geopolitical Picture
Though we look for oil prices to continue trading between $40 and $45 per barrel into early winter, a price spike can’t be ruled out entirely. But it would probably take a major crisis in the Middle East to cause one. The price of crude did jump a bit last week when Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian bomber. Turkey isn’t a major oil producer, but a good deal of oil from the Middle East and Russia does pass through Turkish pipelines or Turkish waters on the way to Europe, so a confrontation between Ankara and Moscow does raise some legitimate fears for the oil market. (Still, the price run-up subsided once the initial war fears calmed down.)
Barring a full-blown crisis, we don’t see crude prices moving much higher. Despite all the chaos in the Middle East and growing worries about Islamic terrorism, oil production in the region remains robust. Libyan output is down because of the country’s continuing civil war, but OPEC members such as Saudi Arabia are pumping as fast as they can. Unless new fighting threatens a major oil field or export terminal, traders will likely continue to shrug off the carnage. Expect oil prices to trend only a bit higher during the winter, with U.S. crude reaching about $50 per barrel toward spring.
Oil producers are hoping that OPEC will agree on output cuts to prop up prices when the group meets this week. But we think they’ll be disappointed. Oil-rich countries that are suffering from crude’s price swoon are calling on Saudi Arabia to curb its output, a move the kingdom has made in the past when global oil supply and demand were out of sync. Now, the Saudis say they’re unwilling to cut production unless other big producers join them, and we think that odds of such an agreement aren’t good.
Tensions within the oil cartel are already high as rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposite sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Russia, which exports about as much oil as Saudi Arabia does but isn’t a member of OPEC, has aligned itself with Iran, further polarizing relations among the world’s oil powers. We believe it would be awfully hard to forge an agreement among such fractious negotiating partners, especially when every oil exporter is already producing as fast as possible to maintain market share at a time when global oil demand looks shaky.
Should OPEC reach a deal to cut production, the resulting price increase would spur U.S. producers to ramp up again. The lesson of the last few years has been that American energy firms can quickly increase their output when oil prices are high. Even amid a big price drop, those companies are finding ways to hang on, mostly by cutting their costs wherever possible. And if they can survive at $45 per barrel, you can bet that they would thrive at the $60 or $80 per barrel that many oil exporters would like to see.