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July 27, 2009 8:00 AM, EDT

Fuel Price Honeymoon

This Editorial appears in the July 27 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Our latest little honeymoon with fuel prices likely will end soon, as recent increases in the cost of crude oil work their way down to the retail pump.

Over the past four weeks, the average cost of a gallon of retail diesel has fallen to $2.496, nearly 50% below the prices we were paying one year ago, when fuel reached all-time highs and sent the trucking industry reeling.

Gasoline has been falling at an even faster rate, and the national average retail price is once again below that for diesel, at $2.463 a gallon.

Lately, we’ve been seeing crude prices move in lock step with economic optimism. When Wall Street reports higher stock prices, oil prices jump. In other words, because demand for diesel is still at a recession-induced low level, oil speculators appear to be pushing crude prices up as they bet that future growth will lead to increased consumption of oil, which in turn will mean higher retail fuel prices.

As the retail price of diesel has fallen, the cost of crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange has risen, from $58.32 a barrel on July 13 to $65.40 on July 22.

Oil market analysts tell us that there is already a 3-cent-a-gallon price increase lurking for diesel, based on the spread between the pump cost today and the prices that will be charged when the crude purchased at current prices is refined into retail fuel.

This prediction is further evidence that we need to continue down the path to increased fuel efficiency, through improved aerodynamic designs for our vehicles, slower speeds and more efficient routing, among other steps.

While fuel prices may rise and fall in line with overall economic activity, we can count on higher fuel prices in the long run almost as surely — as the saying goes — as we can count on death and taxes.

With that certainty, we must continue to support efforts to improve our use of fuels now and not wait until we again are literally over a barrel.

As hard as it is to invest in fuel-saving systems when fuel prices aren’t outrageous, and when every company’s bottom line is under extreme pressure, it is imperative that we do so.

It will only be harder to fund these improvements when diesel and gasoline climb back toward $5 a gallon, as they inevitably will.