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Energy Recovery Won't Be Easy in '09

Though seasonal patterns and supply cuts might prop up petroleum prices at certain points next year, analysts and traders are nearly certain that the record oil levels reached during the summer of 2008 won't be seen again any time soon.

Though oil surged to nearly $150 a barrel in July, it has come down to less than one-third of its summer height as demand from consumers and businesses around the world slumped. Other products, like natural gas and heating oil, followed suit.

Forecasting groups and economists are predicting that the downturn will last though a good deal of 2009, if not longer, a trend does not bode well for companies that rely on strong prices to remain profitable.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand will drop in 2008 for the first time in 25 years, and will move up slightly next year, but only if the global economy gradually recovers. However, with energy-conscious consumers turning off the lights and driving less, and businesses laying off employees and curtailing production, it is far from clear when things will begin to improve.

Brian Milne, the refined-fuels editor at DTN, expects the "sluggish consumption rate" to certainly last through the first quarter, which is seasonally the weakest demand period for gasoline. Milne's price estimates have a wide range.

He believes crude oil will trade in the $40-a-barrel area at the start of the year, but has a potential upside as high as $75 a barrel. He says gasoline could drop below $1 a gallon, but move up to $1.30 as spring approaches.

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