Oil prices sank as low as $118 a barrel Tuesday on the growing belief that a U.S. economic slowdown and high energy costs are curbing consumer demand for gasoline and other petroleum products.
Crude's decline is giving Americans more relief at the pump. A gallon of regular gasoline on average fell another penny overnight to $3.871, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. Gas prices have fallen four straight weeks for the first time since December; prices are off 5.9 percent from their July high as U.S. motorists cut back on their driving to save money.
Meanwhile, natural gas prices rebounded somewhat after Monday's steep drop. A day after plunging as much as $5 a barrel in a dramatic sell-off, crude continued its downward trend Tuesday as traders sold oil contracts on the belief that prices are still too high in relation to demand and have further room to fall.
Light, sweet crude for September delivery fell $2.24 to settle at $119.17 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after dipping earlier to $118, the lowest level since May 5. Brent crude futures on London's ICE futures exchange fell $3.48 to $117.20 a barrel.
Crude has now fallen $28, or 19 percent, since reaching a trading high of $147.27 on July 11.
"The market psychology has finally shifted," said Stephen Schork, an analyst and trader in Villanova, Pa., adding that "$4-a-gallon gasoline has clearly killed demand."
Still, some analysts say oil has the potential to jump back up.
There are many factors that could keep oil from descending further, said Mike Fitzpatrick, vice president of energy and risk management at MF Global.
Those include political tensions in Nigeria and the Middle East, the potential for a big hurricane along the Gulf Coast, and global demand that is still growing -- just not at the same pace that it had been.
"Even if it seems as though China's economic demand run has slowed some, those changes at the margins still make them a huge consumer of crude products," Fitzpatrick said.
On Monday, the Commerce Department said consumer spending after adjusting for inflation fell 0.2 percent in June -- the biggest drop since February -- as shoppers dealt with higher prices for gasoline, food and other items.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Edouard did not severely disrupt oil and natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico. Valero, for one, said its refineries in the region were operating at slightly reduced rates due to rain and high winds, but that the company does not expect production to be materially affected. (Watch the video to see what analysts are saying about oil prices...)
The dollar's gains against the euro also contributed to oil's decline Tuesday.
The euro fell to $1.5464 from the $1.5587 it bought late in New York trading Monday, making oil and other commodities less attractive to investors seeking a hedge against inflation and dollar weakness.
Meanwhile, natural gas futures fell 5.8 cents to $8.668 per 1,000 cubic feet. On Monday, natural gas plunged 66.3 cents, or 7 percent, to $8.726 per 1,000 cubic feet, its lowest level in nearly six months. Prices have closed lower in eight of the last 11 sessions and dropped 36 percent from the contract's all-time trading high of $13.752, reached July 2.
The pullback is double the size of crude's recent slide. That has fed speculation on Wall Street that a large hedge fund or something like it may be near collapse and has dumped a vast amount of natural gas contracts to free up cash. Last month, SemGroup LP, based in Tulsa, Okla., folded after losing $2.4 billion in bad bets on oil futures. SemGroup's collapse came amid a massive sell off in the oil market.
"Anytime you get that kind of violent price action in a short amount of time, it reeks of someone big being in trouble," Schork said.
Meanwhile, investors ignored continued tension over Iran's nuclear program.
Representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany agreed Monday to seek new sanctions against Iran after the country failed to meet a weekend deadline to respond to an offer intended to defuse the dispute, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said.
Also Monday, Iran announced that it has tested a new weapon capable of sinking ships nearly 200 miles away, and Tehran reiterated threats to close a strategic waterway at the mouth of the Gulf if attacked. Up to 40 percent of the world's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passage along Iran's southern coast, and any move by Iran to close it to tanker traffic would send oil prices skyrocketing.
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell 7.25 cents to settle at $3.2780 a gallon, while gasoline prices dropped 5.72 cents to settle at $2.9430 a gallon.