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When Will the US Energy Boom Help You Out at the Gas Pump?

Thursday, 14 Mar 2013 | 2:39 PM ET
David Lees | Taxi | Getty Images

First, the good news: the U.S. energy sector is being modernized at a breakneck pace, with cleaner and cheaper fuels predicted to drive down prices and to eventually reduce the economy's dependency on foreign oil.

Now, the bad news: Though the domestic energy boom is yielding some economic benefits for consumers now, it's unlikely to result in lower oil and gasoline prices anytime soon—even as consumers struggle at the pump.

The growing flows of natural gas and alternative fuels are just beginning to work their way through the world's largest economy. Economists contend that those sources are helping to support growth, primarily by whittling down the U.S. trade deficit as the country imports less oil, by creating domestic jobs, and by putting downward pressure on energy costs.

(Read More: Can Natural Gas Become the New Gasoline?)

But for many consumers, those price savings have yet to materialize in the place it could have the most discernible impact—at the gas pump.

A big part of the reason is because gas prices are closely tied to oil markets, where prices are largely determined by global factors such as tensions in the Middle East, as well as demand from other major economies.

Siemens CEO on US Economic Outlook
Eric Spiegel, Siemens U.S. president & CEO, discusses investing in infrastructure and manufacturing trends in the U.S., with CNBC's Steve Liesman.

"Price here is a function of global demand. It's global supply, and not U.S. supply," said John Larson, vice president at economic consulting firm IHS. In spite of this, Larson said a shift toward natural gas is providing consumers with what he calls the "intrinsic benefits" of savings on everyday goods and services that often go unnoticed.

"If you happen to be a beneficiary of natural gas cooking and heating, there are savings," he said, citing an impact study that shows the natural gas boom has created an average savings of $926 per household over the last few years. "Indirectly you are seeing lower electricity costs: They are 10 to 15 percent lower as a result of this."

Natural gas, which is both cleaner and cheaper than gasoline, is catching on in parts of the transportation sector, raising hopes that it could begin to supplant fossil fuels.

As CNBC reported this month, railroad BNSF, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is testing the idea of powering locomotives with natural gas.

NatGas is powering more than just trains. Earlier this week, the Energy Information Agency revised its natural gas consumption outlook higher for 2013 and 2014, citing increased demand from major industrial players like Siemens.

"We now have low-cost energy [in the U.S.] from the shale gas boom we're seeing," Eric Spiegel, Siemens U.S. President & CEO told CNBC in an interview.

Still, "we need a long-term energy policy. If we have a long-term energy policy, people are going to make big bets today that they know are going to be around for the future," he added.

The lack of a long-term policy from the federal government may be a key factor behind why the promise of natural gas has yet to match the financial realities of consumers. Despite a modest dip recently, gasoline prices nationwide still hover uncomfortably close to $4 per gallon, more than double what they were a few years ago.

(Read More: Gasoline Prices Dip Again, Bringing Hopes for Relief: AAA)

A near-relentless rise in gas prices helped send producer and consumer prices spiking last month. Because events in key oil-exporting nations and the oil-rich Middle East remain unstable, analysts don't see immediate relief.

"Certainly not this year, maybe next year but not likely to see a benefit until the summer of 2014," said Richard Hastings, macro strategist at Global Hunter Securities. "There are some problems that are fundamental to the motor gasoline story," he added.

Even though the U.S. is producing more of its own petroleum, Hastings points to the country's "gigantic" energy exports as a source of its own retail gas woes.

"The more we export, the more gasoline prices get nudged up,"he said. "Relief this summer is very [unlikely] to occur."

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