Crude-oil prices have fallen about $14, or roughly 17 percent, from their July 14 peak of $78.40. After falling seven straight days, they rose slightly Wednesday in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, to $63.97, partly in reaction to a government report showing fuel inventories a bit lower than expected. But the overall price drop is expected to continue, and prices could fall much more in the weeks and months ahead
As it stands now, the recent oil-price slump has brought the national average for a gallon of unleaded gasoline down to $2.59, according to the AAA motor club. In the Seattle area, prices per gallon have fallen to $2.856 currently from $3.071 a month ago, a decline of 7 percent, according to AAA.
Should oil traders fear that this downward price spiral will get worse and run for the exits by selling off their futures contracts, Verleger said, it's not unthinkable that oil prices could return to $15 or less a barrel, at least temporarily. That could mean gasoline prices as low as $1.15 per gallon.
Other experts won't guess at a floor price, but they agree that a race to the bottom could break out.
"The market may test levels here that are too low to be sustained," said Clay Seigle, an analyst at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consultancy in Boston.
On Monday, the oil-producing cartel OPEC hinted that if prices fall precipitously, OPEC members would cut production to lift them. But that would take time.
"That takes six to nine months. If we don't have a really cold winter here [creating a demand for oil], prices will fall. Literally, you don't know where the floor is," Verleger said. "In a market like this, if things start falling ... prices could take you back to the 1999 levels. It has nothing to do with production."