Recent articles have reflected skepticism about the benefits of lower oil prices, and especially cheaper gasoline, for the US economy. This is somewhat puzzling, since the US is still a net importer of crude oil, and as such enjoys significant savings on our collective oil import bill during this period. And while the fallout for US oil producers whose rising output helped to trigger last fall's oil price collapse might negate some of the upside of that decline for the nation as a whole, the benefits for consumers ought to be less ambiguous and more impactful.
Start with some basic figures. From January to September of last year, West Texas Intermediate crude oil, the main benchmark for US petroleum, averaged $100 per barrel (bbl), in line with the average of the previous three years. From October through mid-May of this year, WTI has averaged just over $60/bbl, roughly where it trades today. The data for what US refineries paid to acquire imported oil through March reflect a similar drop, implying national savings of around $60 billion since the price of oil fell below the previous year's lows last October, on the basis of 7 million bbl/day of net crude oil imports. That equates to $94 billion on an annualized basis.
However, as I've noted before, the US has become a significant net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline and diesel fuel. If the revenue from those sales has fallen in parallel with oil prices, that would shrink the benefit for overall US petroleum trade by about a third.
At that level, the GDP gains from cheaper imported oil appear to be more than offset by cuts of over $90 billion in capital expenses as US oil producers seek to reduce their costs and manage their cash flow in a low-price environment. Those cuts, along with reduced operating expenses, ripple through oil companies and their supply chains, resulting in job losses and suppliers that have less, in turn, to invest in new equipment.
Of course the flip side of that is that with US net petroleum imports below 5 million bbl/day, out of total consumption of just over 19 million bbl/day, the country would suffer much less than previously from a sudden increase in oil prices due to some geopolitical event or a further change in OPEC's strategy.
Nor does this alter the fact that US consumers whose jobs are not tied to the oil industry have more left to spend or save every month, thanks to lower prices at the gas pump. Since the beginning of last October, US retail gasoline prices have averaged $0.84 per gallon less than at the same point a year earlier, peaking at a $1.25 year-on-year discount in mid-April. Current prices for all grades average $0.97/gal. less than in mid-May of 2014, going into the Memorial Day weekend. As a result, consumers have gained around $90 billion in gas savings through May, equivalent to $137 billion per year.
If they're not yet spending the difference on other goods and services, they have reacted in other ways more directly related to cheaper gasoline: They appear to be driving more. The US Department of Transportation's gauge of vehicle miles traveled is up sharply, at or near a new high. API's oil statistics for the first quarter of 2015 show total US gasoline consumption ahead by 2.9%, compared to the first quarter of 2014. As cold and snowy as the past winter was, that's surprising. If this trend persists, it could indicate a reversal of the generally downward trend in US gasoline demand since the financial crisis.
Consumers also appear to be purchasing larger, somewhat less fuel-efficient new cars. The Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan reported that average US new-car fuel economy of new cars sold in April was 0.6 mpg lower than at its peak last August, though still up by 5.1 mpg since October 2007. Consistent with the figures on fuel economy, sales of hybrid cars fell by 16% in the first quarter, compared to last year, and now make up just over 2% of US new cars. Plug-in hybrids fell by nearly a third. Only battery-electric EVs bucked this trend, driven largely by Tesla's growth in sales.
Despite these shifts, I don't believe the return--for however long--of fuel prices that start with a "2" instead of a "3" or "4" will turn the US back into a nation of gas guzzlers. Consumers are only spending a fraction of their savings at the pump buying more fuel, and the preference of many for larger cars than they were buying when gas prices reached $4 per gallon seasonally in much of the country doesn't alter the fact that even light trucks are becoming steadily more efficient.
Wherever the rest of that $100-plus billion a year from cheaper gasoline is going today, Americans would be wise not to assume it will carry into the future indefinitely. Oil prices remain volatile and uncertain. Although OPEC might be correct in projecting that we will not see $100 per barrel again soon, current prices may not prove sustainable, either.