Shale boom to push pump prices down next year

HOUSTON – Barring bad weather and major disruptions in the global oil supply, market forces may curb unbridled U.S. gasoline prices next year more than any year since the country emerged from economic recession.

Unforeseen incidents still have power to galvanize prices at the pump, and some parts of the U.S. may see prices swing 75 cents in either direction – markets are still volatile on a weekly basis – but the average price of gasoline could fall by 10 cents next year, according to the consumer gasoline information website GasBuddy.com.

Booming oil production at U.S. shale plays shielded the country from big spikes in crude prices this year, even as international conflicts in the Middle East slowed the flow of oil several times. That, GasBuddy said in a recent report, could drive gas prices lower next year, as well.

As always, crude costs and gasoline prices will likely vary widely across the country. The Gulf Coast’s massive refinery complex has kept gas cheap in Texas and surrounding states, and could again in 2014 – barring any big storms. Meanwhile, the northeastern U.S. has seen some of the highest prices in the country in recent years as gasoline imports decline out of an economically weakened Europe.

At the upper end of the price scale next year, drivers in Texas and much of the southern U.S. could pay between $3.50 and $3.64 for a gallon of regular. Nationally, that figure could reach $3.83 per gallon, according to GasBuddy.

In Houston, a gallon of regular cost $3.11 on Thursday, up six cents from a week ago, according to AAA. The annual average in Texas next year could range between $3.15 to $3.40 for a gallon of regular, according to GasBuddy projections.

GasBuddy expects other trends to take hold in 2014, as well:

-          U.S. gasoline imports could drop to the lowest point since 2000 and exports will probably increase.

-          Diesel will likely remain refiners’ favorite product, more profitable and pricier at the pump than regular gasoline.

-          And as a national boom in oil production starts to impact crude prices, oil industry lobbyists may push the federal government to allow crude exports.