The inversion of energy markets over the past year has brought an end to the frantic "money game" played by bookkeeper Sharon Perrigo at St. Bernard Parish in Omaha, Neb.
When huge natural gas bills arrived last winter, Perrigo delayed payments and shuffled funds around while urging his Roman Catholic parishioners to dig extra deep on Sunday mornings.
Now, with energy prices dropping nationwide, the situation has improved dramatically. St. Bernard can suddenly go forward with plans to replace the parish school's windows and heating system - both installed in 1949 - with newer, more energy efficient models. It also can repair the church's water-damaged tile roof.
"It has been quite a blessing," Perrigo said.
Many factors worked in favor of energy consumers this year, and against the industry, which saw profits and stock values sag because of declining prices for natural gas, crude oil and all the fuels derived from it.
Analysts said oil and gas producers, which rushed to sink drill bits into the ground when prices were high, were caught off guard by abruptly weakening demand from industry. The result was a surplus for an economy that was winding down into a recession.
Power companies got caught up in the frenzy, too, as blackouts in the West and fears of the same in other parts of the country prompted heavy spending on the pipelines, generating plants and electricity lines that would be needed to meet the apparently insatiable demand.
While the industry cranked up production, consumption lagged.
"Shortage fears were replaced by oversupply," said Lawrence Makovich, senior director of the North American energy unit at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass. He added: "2002 will go down as the year of project retrenchment. Power plants under construction will be abandoned."
Spot prices for natural gas, the fuel of choice for these newly planned power plants, recently fell below $2 per 1,000 cubic feet, one-fifth of the heights reached at the beginning of the year. Gasoline has been selling for less than $1 a gallon in many parts of the country. And heating oil prices dropped by nearly a third from a year ago.
Also tumbling are the stock prices of some of the largest energy companies.
Between January and December, shares of oil and gas giant ExxonMobil fell from $50 to around $30, while those of power behemoth Calpine Corp. dropped from $35 to around $11.
Peter Hartley, an economist at Rice University in Houston, said the leading energy suppliers are partly to blame for the country's economic sluggishness, and it has come back to bite them.
"The role of the energy industry in the business cycle has been underestimated," Hartley said. "I know everyone talks about the dot-coms, but I think the runup in energy prices last year also had something to do with the downturn this year."
On the flip side, declining energy prices "will help the economy. There's no question about that," said Dan Lippe, consultant at Petral Worldwide in Houston. "It's like a big tax cut."
It is now less expensive to manufacture everything from glass to petrochemicals and also cheaper to ship finished products, meaning lower prices for many consumer goods. The airline industry, in need of any help it can get, benefits from lower jet fuel prices and retailers spend less on monthly electricity bills.
The savings trickle down to the St. Bernard Parish.
Last March, the parish received a whopping $16,009.76 natural gas bill, which included charges from February, plus adjusted costs for December and January, when prices reached all-time highs. The parish had previously been paying around $1,100 in winter months.
"We were just freaked when that bill came," Perrigo, the bookkeeper, said. "We held our bills longer. We just played the money game, like every other parish."
St. Bernard's parishioners donated $5,500 toward the bill and the parish generated funds through its day care center. Little by little, the bill was paid off, as natural gas prices came down, and the church could begin thinking about spending on improvements.
Thanks to cheap prices and unseasonably mild weather, the parish used just $581 worth of natural gas in November.
"We can't complain," Palmer said.
By Brad Foss
© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.