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Oil Rises Above $78 to New One-Year High

AP | July 31, 2007
JOHN WILEN

Oil prices set another one-year record Tuesday on expectations that crude inventories fell last week and reports of new violence in Nigeria, a large oil producer and key supplier to the U.S.
Investors believe Wednesday's inventory report by the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration will show that refiners drew down oil inventories as they continued to increase gasoline production last week, analysts said.

News that a Nigerian construction worker was kidnapped Tuesday added to the bullish tone of a market that seems determined to test last year's record highs, analysts said.

"They want to get back to $78.40," the intraday price record set July 14, 2006, said Jack Hunter, an energy trader at FC Stone Group in Kansas City.

Light, sweet crude for September delivery gained $1.31 to $78.14 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That put futures within striking distance of the intraday record, and of the settlement price of $77.03 set the same day.

Oil's advance helped pull other energy futures higher. But news that Total PetroChemicals USA Inc. is reducing output at a Texas refinery to perform maintenance gave investors a rare additional reason to buy gasoline futures.

The August gasoline contract, which expires after the close of trading Tuesday, rose 6.34 cents to $2.149 on the Nymex. Expiring futures contracts are often subject to volatile swings as investors square positions.

At the pump, meanwhile, the average national price of a gallon of gas fell 1.4 cents overnight to $2.876, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Retail prices, which typically lag the futures market, peaked at $3.227 a gallon in late May. Futures at that point were rallying on concerns that refiners were not making enough gas to meet summer driving demand.

"The gasoline market now appears amply supplied with the end of the heavy driving season only about a month away," wrote Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates in Galena, Ill., in a research note.

That's part of the reason gasoline futures have fallen nearly 29 cents over the last two weeks.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures rose 3.19 cents to $2.097 a gallon and natural gas futures fell 15 cents to $6.349 per 1,000 cubic feet.

September Brent crude gained $1.05 to $76.79 a barrel on the ICE futures exchange in London.

Analysts surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires, on average, expect Wednesday's inventory report to show crude oil inventories fell by 690,000 barrels in the week ended July 27 as refinery utilization rates rose by 0.7 percentage points to 92.4 percent of operating capacity.

Gasoline stocks are expected to have increased by 1.1 million barrels, and distillate stocks, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, to have risen 1.4 million barrels.

Declines in crude inventories have driven oil prices higher in recent weeks, much to analysts' chagrin.

Vienna's PVM Oil Associates noted that "even with such a decline, U.S. crude stocks would remain some 43 million barrels above the five-year average and around 17 million barrels higher than seen in the same week last year."

Those fundamentals don't seem to matter to many speculators. Analysts say large investment funds—many of which trade on technical factors—have pulled money out of gasoline futures and plowed it into oil futures in recent weeks, another factor driving high oil prices and undermining gasoline futures.

Investors are also closely watching OPEC, whose officials have been giving mixed signals about whether the cartel will decide during a September meeting to boost production.

"There is no official price band, but I think I can safely say we would not feel comfortable if the oil price sank to $50 a barrel," said Abdalla Salem el-Badri, secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, in an interview with Austrian financial daily Wirtschaftsblatt published Monday. "A price above $80 also wouldn't make us particularly pleased."

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