How the 'Polar Vortex' Could Lower Gas Prices

The severe weather could make already weak demand for oil even weaker.

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Snow and ice decorate this gas pump at a Murphy Express filling station in north Jackson, Miss., as a customer drives through after purchasing gas early Friday morning, Feb. 12, 2010. Much of Mississippi is expected to receive several inches of snow by mid-morning, and Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency on Thursday in anticipation of the winter storm which is expected to force dozens of school cancellations and close some businesses.

Sometimes we look back for hints of what lies ahead. And sometimes that's an exercise in futility. Suffice to say, we didn't see this coming.

When Al Roker said "it's colder in Chicago than the South Pole," that got my attention. I don't know if any of us will ever say "it's cold outside" with quite the same conviction.

From an energy perspective, it's the weather now that's the lead story. Reuters reported earlier this week that "the severe cold weather sweeping across the mid-United States is threatening to curtail booming oil production as it disrupts traffic, strands wells and interrupts drilling and fracking operations."

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Reuters added: "Winters are especially brutal in North Dakota. Although temperatures average about 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 degree Celsius) between December and February, winter storms can send that number well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18C). Oil wells and feeder roads are usually shut as storms deposit snow."

Why does this matter? Because Bakken crude oil freezes into a substance resembling plastic when temperatures drop to between minus 40 F to minus 60 F (minus 40 C to minus 51 C), according to studies from oil producers such as Chevron.

We're hearing that the sub-zero temperatures this so-called "polar vortex" has brought us will diminish and then we'll be dealing with the customary frigidity that is winter. For consumers that means the deep freeze has brought a flat line to gas prices. Understandably, weak demand – typical for January – has gotten even weaker.

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Perhaps it's coincidence, but we've seen WTI crude fall from $99 per barrel at year's end to less than $94 this week. Other crudes have also declined during the same period. And the national average price of gas today ($3.30 per gallon) is actually a penny less than it was a week ago.

Now, it's quite possible that the apparent price pause would have occurred even if "polar vortex" had never entered the national lexicon. But what we can be certain of is this: It will get warmer, snow will melt and flowers will bloom. And as that happens and we approach the first pitch of Major League Baseball's 2014 season, I suspect there will be few occasions, if any, when we'll be able to say that "the national average price of gas today is less than it was a week ago."

Gregg Laskoski is a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com.

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