[OIL PRICES] The prices jump on tight gasoline supply report
Oil prices soared over $4 a barrel today, halting a dramatic two-week slide after a surprise drop in U.S. gasoline supplies fed speculation that record fuel prices aren't keeping Americans off the roads.
But energy market analysts offered mixed views on whether prices would swing back toward record levels above $147 a barrel hit earlier this month or if today's big rally was just a temporary bump.
Light, sweet crude for September delivery jumped $4.58 cents to settle at $126.77 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after earlier rising as high as $127.39. It was crude's biggest one-day rally since July 10, when prices ended $5.60 higher. Oil closed $2.54 lower on Tuesday at $122.19 a barrel.
The Energy Information Administration said in its weekly inventory report that U.S. gasoline supplies fell by 3.5 million barrels last week. Analysts surveyed by energy research firm Platts expected gas supplies to increase by 400,000 barrels. U.S. crude stockpiles also fell by 100,000 barrels last week, less than the 1.3 million barrels analysts had predicted.
The report gave some traders reasons to believe that crude's slide was overblown and that the drop in gas supplies mean prices have fallen enough to nudge Americans back onto the roads.
"It's stopping the bearish momentum that we've seen over the last few days," Phil Flynn, analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago, said of the surprise decline in gas supplies.
But some analysts raised questions whether U.S. fuel demand was picking up. Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst of Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J., doubted that Americans are actually driving more, saying a seasonal bump in gas demand probably drew down supplies temporarily.
"It's nonsense to say that this proves that people are back to their old driving habits," Kloza said. "There just wasn't enough enthusiasm to push prices lower. "
Crude's jump was boosted by word that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will quit his post in September, an announcement that raised doubts about the future of U.S.-backed Middle East peace efforts in the oil-producing region.
Also supporting prices was a report by Goldman Sachs, which affirmed its earlier forecast that crude will hit $149 a barrel by the end of the year.
The investment bank called weakness in U.S. energy demand "transient rather than permanent," saying the fundamentals of falling oil production and rising world energy consumption remain intact. Past forecasts for higher oil prices have caused jumps in prices as speculative buyers are drawn into the market.
Still, other analysts said oil's recovery doesn't mean prices are about to go higher again, but rather shows that traders saw a short-term buying opportunity after Tuesday's sell-off.
"I still expect to see further air being let out of this balloon," said Stephen Schork, an analyst and trader in Villanova, Pa.
He noted that U.S. demand for energy is falling across most sectors. Inventories of distillates, which include heating oil and diesel, rose by 2.4 million barrels, more than the 1.8 million barrels expected, according to the EIA report.
And Americans continue to cut back on their driving to cope with almost $4-a-gallon pump prices. The average price of a regular gas fell 1.5 cents today to $3.926, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Prices Information Service and Wright Express.
"We clearly have demand destruction," Schork said.
Before today's rebound, crude prices had dropped in seven of the last 10 sessions, and are down about 14 percent from their peak above $147 a barrel earlier this month. Prices remain about 60 percent higher than at this time last year.
The dollar was stronger today against the euro, but the oil market seemed to be ignoring a trend that ordinarily would pressure prices. Investors buy commodities as a hedge against inflation and a weaker dollar but tend to sell when the American currency strengthens.
Oil also gained Tuesday's announcement from Royal Dutch Shell PLC that it may not be able to fulfill some oil export contracts after Nigerian militants sabotaged a pipeline in the Niger Delta. Militant attacks on Nigerian oil facilities have trimmed nearly one quarter of the country's regular daily output. The strongest Nigerian militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, said it sabotaged two pipelines early Monday in the southern oil-producing region.
In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures rose 5.08 cents to settle at $3.5203 a gallon while gasoline prices gained 12.74 cents to settle at $3.1351 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 11.8 cents to settle at $9.248 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, September Brent crude rose $3.34 cents at $126.05 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.