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Experts say gas prices likely to decline

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Over the past week, average gas prices have fallen in metro Atlanta to the tune of 8 cents per gallon for regular unleaded, according to price watchers.

AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report noted prices Tuesday averaged $2.37 per gallon of regular unleaded gas in the metropolitan area, 2 cents below the per-gallon average on Labor Day. Tuesday's price also was below the national average of $2.57 per gallon for regular unleaded.

Crude oil declined by $5 per barrel last week, and closed Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange at $68.02 per barrel. The lower crude oil price preceded a continued decline in retail gas prices over the Labor Day weekend, said Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South.

Laskoski said travel for the weekend, both nationwide and in the Southeast, was projected to be significantly lower than last year. He added that rain forecasts in several parts of the country may have curbed last-minute travel plans.

"Oil and gasoline industry fundamentals are favorable for consumers now as the peak summer driving season comes to an end," said Laskoski. "Barring any impact upon the nation's oil infrastructure from hurricanes, or some other unexpected event, fuel prices should gradually move lower and that's customary at this time of year."

Energy officials anticipate prices will continue to fall at a slower pace through December.

"We have it falling about 12 cents per gallon [on average] from September to December," said Neil Gamson, an economist with the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). "We see gas prices bottoming out at the end of the year in December."

Gamson said the future of gas prices will depend, in large part, on what the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decides to do with the oil supply going into this fall and winter. OPEC is scheduled to meet today in Vienna, Austria, to discuss issues related to oil production.

"It's hard to say what they're going to do," Gamson said. "If they are going to cut production, we won't see much movement in prices over the next several months, barring some unforeseen events."

He said he expects OPEC will not drastically reduce production, and that he anticipates gas prices will generally decrease over the next several months.

Next year's gas prices are expected to rise a few cents higher than where they peaked this year, Gamson added.

The Energy Information Administration projects the annual average regular-grade gasoline retail price to be $2.34 per gallon this year, and that crude oil prices next year will increase the average price to $2.66 per gallon in 2010. Annual average diesel fuel retail prices are expected to be $2.46 and $2.84 per gallon in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

"As the economy starts to turn around, we see prices peaking next year in the $2.70-per-gallon averages," Gamson said. "We don't see $3 gasoline. That's not that it can't happen in some areas, but we don't see it [for a national average]."