Brent oil price at US$100, highest since 2008, on Egypt unrest

NEW YORK: An important oil price benchmark topped US$100 per barrel on Monday for the first time since 2008, as investors kept an anxious eye on Egypt and worried about unrest there disrupting the flow of oil from the Middle East.

The price of Brent crude rose $1.59 to settle at $101.01 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London. Brent is used to price oil in Asia, where demand is growing fast, and in Europe, where a cold winter is leading to high demand for heating oil. Also, European supplies of oil from the North Sea have been falling steadily.

Brent crude has been trading far above U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, for months. Oil supplies at Cushing, Oklahoma, where the U.S. benchmark is priced, have been rising, keeping its price below Brent.

The price of WTI rose $2.85, or 3.2 percent, to settle at $92.19 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That marks a two-session gain of about 8 percent.

Both Brent and WTI have been on the rise since anti-government rioting began in Egypt at the end of last week. While Egypt is not a major oil-producing country, each day about two million barrels of oil pass through the Suez Canal and an adjacent pipeline, both of which are controlled by Egypt. The Suez remains open and shipping has not been interrupted.

"Those watching it closely do not believe it is terribly likely to happen soon or at all, but recognize the possibility that it could occur," energy consultant Cameron Hanover said.

The larger concern is that the unrest in Egypt, which follows upheaval in Yemen and Tunisia, could spread to more important oil producing regions like Saudi Arabia. Egypt is by far the most populous nation in the Arab world.

"Given how important a role Egypt plays in the Arab world and in the Middle East, the unrest adds a new level of anxiety to the oil market," says James Burkhard, Managing Director for Global Oil at the analysis firm IHS CERA.

Oil prices climbed in recent months as growing economies around the world have pushed demand to record levels. Prices had fallen back somewhat because of investor concerns that high inflation in China would temper economic growth there. Also, Saudi Arabia's oil minister implied that OPEC nations were ready to raise production to bring down prices.

On Monday, oil prices were also pushed higher by positive economic news in the U.S. And a rising stock market fueled speculation that demand for oil and gas in the U.S. would pick up.

The Commerce Department said that consumer spending rose sharply in December, and purchases for the whole year increased at the fastest pace in three years.

Exxon Mobil reported its most profitable quarter since the third quarter of 2008, and its shares rose nearly 2 percent to $80.43 in afternoon trading. Shares in Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell all rose between one percent and three percent in afternoon trading.

Apache Corp., based in Houston, which has large operations in Egypt, saw its shares drop 7 percent late last week amid fears the unrest would disrupt its operations. The company says its operations remain unaffected. In afternoon trading Monday, Apache shares rose $3.41, or 3 percent, to $118.25.

In other energy trading on the Nymex, heating oil added 4.61 cents to settle at $2.7403 a gallon, gasoline futures picked up 1.42 cents to settle at $2.5001 a gallon and natural gas gained 9.7 cents to settle at $4.420 per 1,000 cubic feet. - AP

Oil hovers near US$92 in Asia as traders eye Egypt protests

SINGAPORE: Oil prices hovered near $92 a barrel Tuesday in Asia as a chaotic power struggle in Egypt threatened the key crude Suez Canal choke point.

Benchmark crude for March delivery was down 24 cents at $91.95 a barrel at midday Singapore time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose $2.85, or 3.2 percent, to settle at $92.19 on Monday.

Opposition leaders are planning a massive street protest in Cairo on Tuesday in a bid to oust 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak as an uprising against his 29-year rule begins its second week. Egypt's military said Monday it would not use force on marchers and recognized "the legitimacy of the people's demands."

Oil has jumped about 8 percent in the last two trading sessions on fears that chaos in Egypt could disrupt the 2 million barrels of crude per day that pass through the Suez Canal and an adjacent pipeline. So far, the Suez remains open, and shipping has not been interrupted.

"The concern that the popular uprising in Egypt will impact either of these pieces of critical infrastructure has applied pressure to the price of crude," said Richard D. Soultanian of NUS Consulting Group.

Investors are also worried violent street protests - which toppled Tunisian President Ben Ali last month - could spread to other Middle Eastern countries.

"The force and duration of this market propellant will depend upon the shape and form of the resolution of the Egyptian uprising and whether this wave of public discontent ends with Egypt or continues to spread to neighboring countries," Soultanian said.

In other Nymex trading in February contracts, heating oil fell 1.4 cent to $2.73 a gallon and gasoline slid 0.9 cent to $2.49 a gallon. Natural gas futures for March delivery were down 1.1 cents at $4.40 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, Brent crude was down 61 cents at $100.40 a barrel ICE Futures exchange. - AP

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