Oil prices, already down hugely from last summer's $150-a-barrel high, might drop all the way to $20, then reach a "long-term equilibrium" around $35, hedge-fund manager

Jacques Mechelany

, of

Bank of China (Suisse),

told Reuters yesterday.

Mechelany sees this happening "as falling U.S. demand outstrips Chinese growth."

That would keep gasoline in the $1-and-change range, way down from last summer's $4. Good for consumers and business users, and frustrating for solar and alternative-power investors.

Why is oil so volatile? Mechelany (who predicted this fall's petro price slide) blames speculators: "The commodities bubble that burst earlier this year has been driven by a few [investment] houses. . . ."

Gulf Oil Co. CEO Joe Petrowski

made similar price predictions to local business folks last week in Massachusetts. According to the Quincy Patriot-Ledger, Petrowski said, "The price of oil could sink to $20 per barrel, and there is a chance gasoline prices could drop as low as $1 per gallon by early next year."

Against those scenarios, there's the bullish oil case, from

BlackRock Inc. global chief investment officer Bob Doll

at the Reuters Investment Summit in New York yesterday. He said Arab oil ministers "will protect the the $40-per-barrel" threshold. "Eventually, I think oil prices will be a lot higher than they are today. Maybe $150 again." Time to drill our way out of recession, says Doll.

Where's oil really headed? The oil ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meet in Algiers to argue about it Dec. 17.



, as an oil buyer, refiner and retailer, tends to suffer as crude prices rise, and it tends to profit when they fall. New

CEO Lynn Elsenhans

will make her case to investment analysts at a presentation next Monday.

Public finance

Even before the new Congress and

President-elect Barack Obama

have a chance to spend billions on make-work public works, construction firms are turning to nonprofits and public agencies to stay busy.

New construction-management jobs at the drugmakers who dominated the local market are now scarce, but the Philadelphia-area office of Sweden-based construction giant

Skanska Inc.

has boosted its staff to 136 this fall, from 106 a year ago. This is partly to handle new hospital expansions in Phoenixville, Wilmington and Reading, says area

manager Ed Szwarc


"Two years ago, we were 70 percent pharma in this office," Szwarc told me last week. "Now, we're 70 percent health care."

Similarly, project manager

Remington Group Inc.

, of Wayne, has been hired by the public Housing Authority of Chester County to oversee its proposed leveling of the 25-unit, 5.5-acre


public-housing complex in Phoenixville. It will be replaced with perhaps as many as 50 "family townhouse units" funded by a mix of public and private money, says Remington owner

William F. Connor.

Pennrose Properties L.L.C.,

Philadelphia, will build the complex if it is approved, says

senior vice president Timothy Henkel

. His firm is building a roughly similar 73-unit group at the Delaware County Housing Authority's Fairgrounds project in Chester Township. But the Phoenixville plan is still "at the sketch-plan stage," said

borough manager L. Jean Krack.

Aria raises $10 million

Aria Systems

, the Web payment- and customer-tracking software-network operator, based in Media, has raised $10 million from the Rockefeller family-backed


, of New York, and other investors, says

Jim D'Arcangelo

, vice president at Aria.

Aria was started in 2003 by

Edward Sullivan

, founder of the old


service, D'Arcangelo said. Aria will use the $10 million to boost its staff by a "pretty significant" number, D'Arcangelo told me. The company now employs 50 around the United States, with a majority at its Providence Road headquarters.

Charlie's title

Tastykake chief executive Charles Pizzi

was president and chief executive of the

Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce

from 1989-2002. My Sunday column wrongly said he had been chairman.