- Traders are growing worried the demand for gasoline is not there to keep crude prices above $50 a barrel.
- "As gas prices drop, that creates an undertow for the entire crude oil market," said one analyst.
- Gasoline station operators have reported that their sales are down 1.5 to 2 percent this year, according to Lipow Oil Associates.
Lackluster gasoline demand is once again raising concerns that the oil market won't be able to escape the doldrums.
Demand for U.S. gasoline has recovered since January, but remained below 2016 levels throughout much of this year. Now, analysts are worried weak consumption will cause gasoline stockpiles to keep building and eventually result in weaker crude oil demand and pricing.
U.S. gasoline futures were down more than 1 percent on Monday, reflecting demand concerns as refiners emerge from the winter maintenance season and prepare to turn out more fuel. Meanwhile, U.S. crude settled 39 cents lower at $49.23, extending last week's deep losses.
"As gas prices drop, that creates an undertow for the entire crude oil market," said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service.
Part of the problem is a tough comparison with extraordinarily low gasoline prices last year. The national average gasoline price on Monday was nearly 28 cents above last year's level, according to GasBuddy.com.
"I'm in the camp that says last year was a little bit of the anomaly," Kloza said. "Gas was so cheap that we drove a little bit more almost capriciously. This year, I just don't think it's going to happen."
In a troubling sign, the nation's gasoline station operators have reported at industry conferences that their sales are down 1.5 to 2 percent this year, according to Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates.
"When you hear retailers telling you that their demand is down you've got to be a believer," he told CNBC.
Lipow said he fears that trend will carry through for the balance of 2017. Demand is certain to rise as the summer driving season ramps up, but Lipow sees stockpiles remaining relatively high.
That puts pressure on refiners' profit margins and could cause them to reduce activity at the nation's refineries later this year, leading to an inventory buildup of crude oil, the feedstock for most fuels.
Kloza said Gulf Coast refiners would start feeling pressure if the cheapest conventional gasoline blend stock trades at $5 to $6 above a barrel of Light Louisiana Sweet crude, down from a spread of roughly $8 today.
Crude oil prices are down about 8 percent this year as rising U.S. production caps rallies fueled by short-selling and expectations that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producer nations will extend a six-month deal to cut their output.
U.S. crude looked like it was on a path to settle between $49.50 and $52 a barrel after sinking to about $47 last month, Kloza said. However, it now appears that any disappointing news could send the commodity tumbling back down to $47, he added.
John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital, believes oil prices could fall even further — to the November lows of $42 a barrel.
Last week's report on U.S. crude stockpiles showed a 1 million barrel decline, but refineries ratcheted up activity, again raising the specter of higher gasoline inventories, according to Kilduff.
"That will remove quickly any kind of thought that those supplies might get tight," he said.