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Energy prices heading downward for the holiday (11:26 a.m. 12/22/09)

By MARK WILLIAMS
AP Energy Writer

The world’s biggest oil producers on Tuesday opted to leave production volumes unchanged, a decision that could mean short-term stability for energy prices after a volatile year.

OPEC negotiations in Africa can have a direct impact on consumers and what they must pay to heat their homes or fill up the car.

Crude prices peaked in late October and have been edging downwards since. So have retail gasoline prices and other fuels that are derived from oil.

Yet prices in the past year have rebounded quickly overall. The price of crude doubled after OPEC agreed to reduce output by a combined 4.2 million barrels each day in late 2008.

Some members of the group in need of revenue have been cheating on those quotas. While prices have been in decline, they appear well within the comfort level for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

It’s part of the reason that retail gasoline in the U.S. has remained steady for weeks at about $2.60 per gallon.

Sticking to the agreed upon production levels was the focus of oil ministers meeting Tuesday in Angola, and also of investors who see that OPEC compliance has been sliding.

“OPEC’s decision to hold production steady is bearish because we know production is going up,” PFGBest analyst Phil Flynn said.

Benchmark crude for February delivery dropped 28 cents to $73.44 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 70 cents to settle at $73.72 on Monday.

Pump prices have been heading lower for weeks, even if gradually, and fell 0.5 cents overnight to $2.585 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service.

Heading into the holidays, consumers are paying 5.6 cents less per gallon than they did last month, perhaps a few more dollars for shopping.

In other Nymex trading in January contracts, gasoline fell less than a cent to $1.866 per gallon and heating oil fell 1.3 cents to $1.9323. Natural gas fell 5.2 cents to $5.617 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, Brent crude for February delivery fell 34 cents to $72.65 on the ICE Futures exchange.

Associated Press writers Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Alex Kennedy in Singapore and Adam Schreck in Luanda, Angola, contributed to this report.

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