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    Gas Prices Drop Faster Than Ever

    U.S. refiners may be cutting production due to crimped margins.

    NEW YORK -- The average U.S. retail price for a gallon of gasoline dropped more steeply over the last two weeks than ever before, according to the most recent Lundberg survey.

    Prices will likely fall more, but not as quickly, following a precipitous decline this month, Reuters reported.

    The national average price for a gallon of self-serve, regular unleaded gas was $2.77 on Oct. 24, a decline of 53 cents in the past two weeks, according to survey editor Trilby Lundberg. The survey covers pricing at more than 7,000 gas outlets across the nation.

    The average price of gasoline is approximately 1 cent less than it was a year ago, and $1.33 less than the record peak in July, Lundberg reported.

    "The drop is unprecedented," Lundberg told Reuters. "It was dictated by the crash in crude oil prices and deepened powerfully by falling U.S. gasoline demand."

    On Friday, U.S. light crude for December delivery fell as low as $62.65, the lowest since December 2007.

    "The even weaker economy now suggests that despite a price crash on the street, it is still probably not enough to inspire a strong comeback in demand any time soon," Lundberg told Reuters.

    "It looks as though gasoline prices will continue down, but at a moderate pace, unless crude oil prices leap up substantially and stay there."

    Meanwhile, diesel prices fell 36 cents in the last two weeks to $3.59 per gallon, Lundberg reported.

    Despite the economic slowdown, diesel volumes at truck stops increased in September compared to the month’s volumes last year, according to a fuel survey conducted by the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), which represents 1,100 truck stops and travel plazas.

    Diesel sales at truck stops in September increased 3.17 percent compared to a year earlier. This is the first year-over-year increase in diesel sales volumes since April, which followed a sharp 7.8-percent decline in August.

    The average diesel volume for a single truck stop location was 830,480 gallons in September, compared with a year ago average volume of 804,972.

    Diesel volumes experienced a strong start at the beginning of 2008, but increases did not continue through the spring and summer months. In January and February, truck stop diesel volumes increased at a rate of close to 6 percent year over year. However, as diesel prices rose, volumes began to decline, and by March, sales had dropped by 2.5 percent over the previous year, NATSO reported.

    Diesel sales slightly recovered in April, increasing slightly more than 2 percent compared to the year prior, but then dropped sharply in May, falling 5.8 percent. June diesel sales fell 5.2 percent year over year and July sales dropped 4.5 percent. Diesel sales at truck stops in August declined 7.8 percent compared to August 2007.

    Amid the price and demand decline, U.S. refiners may be ratcheting back production, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

    Gasoline output dropped for the first time in weeks, according to data from the Department of Energy. Sunoco Inc. reported last week it is shutting down a unit used in gasoline production at one of its refineries.

    "It makes no sense to be running [equipment] if they're not making any money," Daniel Katzenberg, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., told The Wall Street Journal.

    When oil prices hit $147 a barrel in July, refiners were unable to pass on the higher cost to consumers, who balked at paying record prices at the pump. Refining profit margins collapsed, and many companies resorted to production cutbacks, making for some of the lowest operating rates at U.S. refineries in years.

    But the refining business isn't faring better now that oil prices are lower, as gasoline prices have dropped at a faster pace, the newspaper reported. Over the past three weeks in the Gulf Coast spot market, gasoline costs an average of $1.86 a barrel less than crude oil, according to data compiled by Muse, Stancil & Co., a consulting firm specializing in the energy industry. With prices at those levels, refiners lose money with each barrel of crude oil they process into gasoline.

    If that continues, gasoline inventories likely will shrink, which could eventually pressure gasoline prices higher, analysts said. However, slacking production hasn't put the brake on falling prices. Since Wednesday, gasoline prices have dropped 16 cents a gallon, and by Sunday, were 14 cents less than what they were at this time last year, according to AAA.

    The auto club expects average gas prices to keep falling in coming weeks, reaching $2.50 before the end of November and possibly dipping lower by the end of the year, the newspaper reported.

    "We're certainly looking at further weakness," said Stephen Schork, president of the oil and gas firm Schork Group, told The Wall Street Journal. Schork said he expects gasoline prices to go up the first quarter of next year.

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