Why is Saudi Arabia cutting oil prices for the U.S.?

Today's move by Saudi Arabia to cut the price of oil destined for the U.S. while raising it for customers in Europe and Asia is shaking up international energy markets.

The Saudis, OPEC's largest oil producer, are feeling the pinch brought on by America's historic shale oil boom, which has helped the U.S. push past Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer. But Greg Priddy, director of global energy and natural resources at Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, downplays the notion that the Saudis are starting a price war or acting to regain the Kingdom's previous level of exports to the U.S., which has fallen sharply in recent years.

"The market has maybe overblown the significance of it a little bit in this idea that it's a targeted move against U.S. shale production," he told CBS MoneyWatch.

Priddy notes that U.S. shale oil has significantly contributed to a decrease in Saudi oil exports to the U.S. Over the past two months alone, those exports have fallen to under 1 million barrels a day, compared to its recent daily average of 1.4 million barrels. That trend underscores "that we're heading into a very oversupplied market next year if we don't have either Saudi production restraint or volume losses elsewhere," he said.

The surprise U.S. price cut by Saudi Arabia will heighten scrutiny on the meeting in Vienna of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries later this month. For now, many analysts are downplaying the Kingdom's latest price adjustment.

"This is the last pricing schedule they are going to put out ahead of [the meeting]," Joseph Posillico, senior vice president of energy derivatives at Jefferies, told Reuters. "Some market participants are going to look at these numbers and try to gauge what they are going to do. I would not put too much weight on this as an indicator."

Priddy thinks Saudi Arabia will eventually trim production to avoid a deeper fall in prices in 2015. He also expects the sharp decline this year in U.S. gasoline prices to continue. The national average of a gallon of gas has fallen below $3, the first time that's happened in nearly four years.

Crude oil prices on Tuesday fell to their lowest level since 2011, with December futures declining $1.59 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Falling U.S. energy prices could boost the economy by encouraging consumers to spend on other goods and services. Consumer spending accounts for roughly two-thirds of economic activity. But cheaper oil also could dent oil company profits, potentially hurting communities around the country involved in shale oil production.