Maine businesses and municipalities that use a lot of gasoline or diesel are welcoming the pronounced drop in fuel costs even as they remain leery of price fluctuations.

While prices are low now, companies prefer stable prices they can count on in the long term.

“What goes down must come up,” said Joanna Bradeen, chief financial officer for the Bangor-based trucking company Hartt Transportation. “We’re seeing some savings, but flat (prices) are really ideal for us. With any kind of transportation entity, you have to have a plan in place to sustain yourself in a fluctuating fuel market.”

In Maine, the price of gasoline has decreased by 42 cents since one year ago, according to Gasbuddy.com. The statewide average is now $2.97 per gallon, the lowest price in nearly four years. Similarly, the average per-gallon price of diesel fuel in New England has decreased from $4.12 in January to $3.63 this month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA.

Those savings bring some short-term joy to commercial enterprises and big fuel consumers, but business people are reluctant to make too much of the price decreases. Unlike many households, most commercial operators set budgets annually knowing that a cost reduction in one category is often offset by an increase in another.

Bradeen said Hartt is in line to see savings of about 10 percent if current gas prices hold through the winter, but she’s not counting on it. The company operates 250 diesel trucks in Maine, hauling mostly paper products and bottled water for Poland Spring.

Bradeen said the company purchases about 6 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. Ten percent savings on about $21 million in annual fuel costs is more than $2 million.

Likewise, Nappi Distributors, one of the state’s biggest wholesalers of beer and wine, is eyeing fuel savings with equanimity.

​Gasoline costs are among the largest expenses for the Gorham-based company, which has a fleet of 115 vehicles and about 25 trucks on the road at any given time. Michelle Apt, Nappi’s controller, said the company purchases about 100,000 gallons of gas and diesel fuel each year.

“We’re constantly trying to maximize effectiveness, mapping out routes, getting as much product on a truck as possible,” she said.

Chris Black, director of sales for the company, said the recent decrease in gas prices has sparked a debate about what to do with those savings.

“Do we make capital expenses, do we hire more salesmen or do we wait?” he said. Typically, management reinvests any unexpected savings back into the company.

Still, price decreases are always preferable to sudden increases, especially for a company like Nappi. Many firms that rely heavily on gas, such as bus charter companies, can assess fuel surcharges to help shoulder increased costs, but Nappi – and all Maine wholesalers – are not allowed to assess surcharges under state law.

“When gas prices increase, we bear that burden,” Black said.

TREND EXPECTED TO CONTINUE

The price of crude oil, the source of both gasoline and heating oil, has been dropping steadily over the past year and is predicted to continue moving downward into next year. The biggest driver is increased domestic production of crude.

The U.S. EIA expects the average price of gasoline to drop to $2.94 per gallon in 2015, a decrease of 45 cents from this year’s average. Heating oil is projected to drop nearly 50 cents as well, to $3.25 a gallon in 2015 across the country.

Although the lower heating oil price is welcome news for the 64.2 percent of Maine homes that use it for heat, there’s less impact in the commercial and institutional sectors. A recent analysis by the Portland Press Herald that compared current prices to last year’s prices suggested that the average consumer could be saving nearly $22 per week combined on gas and heating oil costs.

But many manufacturing facilities, hospitals, colleges and other former large consumers of oil heat have converted to natural gas. About one half of Maine’s natural gas is used in electricity generation and one-third is used by industry, according to the EIA.

Eric Blom, spokesman for Hannaford Supermarkets, which operates 180 stores in the Northeast, said all of the company’s stores burn natural gas. He said Hannaford uses diesel for its trucks, but that any savings achieved by the current drop in price is minimal in the context of the company’s overall budget.

One commercial sector that is reaping big benefits from lower fuel prices is the airline industry.

Paul Bradbury, director of the Portland International Jetport, said it’s early for the airport to see any real savings from its own maintenance vehicles, but he said lower fuel prices have been greeted warmly by commercial carriers.

“Airlines are loving it,” he said. “Fuel is the biggest expense for airlines, so this is great for them. For consumers, though, they are not seeing any lower fares because the airlines don’t have to (pass the savings along).”

In the 12-month period that ended in September, U.S. airlines saved $1.6 billion on jet fuel, The Associated Press reported Tuesday. That helped them post a 5.7 percent profit margin in the first three quarters of this year.

During that time, the average ticket price rose 3.5 percent to $372.21, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes ticket transactions for airlines and travel agencies.

SAVING TAXPAYER DOLLARS

While the private sector is assessing the impact of lower fuel prices, some in the public sector are already capitalizing.

Greg L’Heureux, finance director for the city of South Portland, said he locked in last May at a price of $3.20 per gallon for diesel fuel and $2.97 a gallon for unleaded gasoline. Those prices are good through the current fiscal year, which extends through June.

“We locked in more as a measure of protection,” he said. “Prices may not have hit bottom when we locked in, but stability is important.”

L’Heureux said the locked-in prices for diesel and gasoline were both below budget, but he said the bigger savings are likely to come next year.

He said he’s already locked in for the next fiscal year at $2.77 per gallon for diesel and $2.57 for regular unleaded. Those locked-in prices mean South Portland will save about $90,000 in fuel costs next year, based on 135,000 gallons of annual consumption, he said.