What did I miss?

Weren't consumers around the globe were being decimated by soaring gasoline bills just a few months ago? Wasn't President Bush just over in Saudi Arabia begging the royal family to open up their spigot? Wasn't a presidential candidate just proposing $1,000 consumer rebates to help fight soaring energy bills?

My, how times have changed.

The price of oil has been sliced by well more than half since it peaked in July. Back then, many reputable oil names predicted $250 oil was right around the corner ... now some analysts are throwing around $50 as a short-term target.

For energy companies that were scolded for making so much money, this stinks. ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) are down 28% and 33% in the past six months, respectively. Smaller names like Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) and Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC) have lost more than half their value. Not that you should feel sorry for them or anything. They had their day.

But for consumers, obviously, oil's plunge has been a boon akin to, well, a stimulus package ... care of the oil market. Just how much have we saved?                   

A heck of a lot
Even with the recent changes in driving behavior that have practically obliterated Ford and General Motors (NYSE:GM), Americans still drive their little hearts out. Despite the cutbacks, we still consume around 378 million gallons of gasoline per day.

When you think about that number -- 378 million gallons per day -- the fall in gas prices is pretty staggering. Gas prices peaked on July 11 at $4.11, and have since fallen to $2.78 ... a drop of $1.33 per gallon.

A little quick math: 378 million gallons per day. A savings of $1.33 per gallon. That's $500 million per day, or about $183 billion per year.

Sound familiar? That's just slightly more than the amount the stimulus package that put $600 checks in millions of pockets earlier this year.

When put in the context of our trade deficit, oil's plunge is even more impressive. We imported about 313 million barrels of oil from foreign nations in July alone. Factor in the $80 per-barrel plunge, and we're looking at $300 billion per year chopped off the trade deficit. And most important: not a single dollar had to be printed. For once, an economic stimulus that didn't add a cent of debt to our nation's running tab. Hallelujah!

Of course, there's a downside
Thank goodness, we're getting a bit of relief ... the timing couldn't have been better. Or could it have been?

One of the main drivers behind alternative energy was oil's punishing price. Consumer angst over $4 gasoline prompted a slew of innovation that all but promised an eventual solution to our energy woes, and more importantly, an end to a reliance on foreign oil.

Now that oil has come down to a level most won't complain about (some areas report gasoline at less than $2 a gallon), the need to innovate and the push to conserve have likely fallen by the wayside. Companies like Capstone Turbine (NASDAQ:CPST) and Sasol (NYSE:SSL) have been decimated after investors realized that their importance to the economy has fallen off a cliff. Energy projects that could have been hugely profitable with $150 oil may have to be scrapped with $65 oil, which sure as heck doesn't help solve the problem long-term.

Of course, you won't hear many gripes about falling energy prices. But in the long term, once the economy recovers and demand rebounds, we'll be in over our heads with pricey energy ... again ... and likely in a more onerous way than we were earlier this year. The longer these problems get swept under the rug, the harder they are to solve.

Regardless, you might as well relish in the stimulus package you've received from oil markets while you can. With markets crashing and unemployment on the rise, it's about the only thing worth smiling about these days.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.