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Oil prices pass $133 a barrel

May 21, 2008 12:42:46 PM PDT
Runaway oil prices blew past $130 a barrel for the first time Wednesday and kept going, while gasoline prices persisted in their own relentless climb, rising above $3.80 a gallon. Supply worries, rising demand and a slumping dollar are conspiring to make filling up the car - and paying for just about everything else - a growing burden for Americans.With gas and oil prices setting new records on a daily basis, many analysts are beginning to wonder whether anything can stop prices from rising. There are technical signals in the futures market, including price differences between near-term and longer-term contracts, that crude may soon fall. But with demand for oil growing in the developing world, and little end in sight to supply problems in producing countries such as Nigeria, few analysts are willing to call an end to crude's rally.

Oil's Wednesday rally was fed in part by a report from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration, which said crude inventories fell by more than 5 million barrels last week. Analysts had expected a modest increase.

Light, sweet crude for July delivery rose $4.19 to settle at $133.17 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, but prices rose as high as $133.82 in after-hours electronic trading. It was crude's largest one-day price advance since March 26.

Investors seized on the inventory report to boost prices Wednesday, but traders interested in pushing prices higher are increasingly picking and choosing which news they wish to pay attention to, analysts say.

"Even if this report was bearish, with the momentum the way it is right now, it wouldn't matter," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.

Crude prices first passed $130 overnight on concerns about demand and a weaker dollar. Analysts say crude has been boosted in recent days by especially strong demand for diesel in China, where power plants in some areas are running desperately short of coal and certain earthquake-hit regions are relying on diesel generators for power.

The dollar, meanwhile, weakened against the euro Wednesday. Investors see hard commodities such as oil as a hedge against inflation and a weak dollar and pour into the crude futures market when the greenback falls. A weak dollar also makes oil less expensive to buyers dealing in other currencies.

Many investors believe the dollar's protracted decline over the past year has been the most significant factor behind oil's rise from about $66 a barrel a year ago to today's highs.

At the pump, meanwhile, the average national price of a gallon of regular gas rose 0.7 cent overnight to a record $3.807 a gallon, according to a survey of stations by AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Prices are 60 cents higher than a year ago, and many forecasters believe they'll hit $4 on a national basis at some point over the next month.

"That's a fait accompli at this point," said Linda Rafield, senior oil analyst at Platts, the energy research arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.

Prices are already that high in many parts of the country, and the number of stations charging $4 or more rises each day. Prices are nearing $5 a gallon in parts of Alaska.

Diesel fuel rose 1.9 cents to its own record of $4.558 a gallon Wednesday. Rising prices of diesel, used to transport most consumer and industrial goods, are sending prices of food and many other goods higher.

There are signs that high prices are cutting demand for gasoline, which fell slightly over the past four weeks and has been mostly lower since January, according to EIA data. Only serious "demand destruction," a jump in supplies from Nigeria or other oil producing nations or a jump in gasoline output by U.S. refiners could stop prices from continuing to rise, Rafield said. There is little sign that demand will fall anytime soon in fast-growing China, India and the Middle East, she said.

A move by the government to shore up the dollar, or an announcement that the Federal Reserve won't cut interest rates further, could also reverse the upward momentum, Flynn said; rate cuts tend to weaken the dollar. On Wednesday, the Fed released minutes of its most recent meeting that left the impression it's not inclined to cut interest rates further.

Still, the price differences between the current, July crude oil contract and contracts for delivery of oil in later months signal a possible correction, or sharp price downturn, at some point, Rafield said. Many analysts have long argued that prices have risen well beyond levels that can be justified by supply and demand fundamentals.

"It's very difficult to call when this is going to happen, but when it happens, it's going to be quick and ugly," Flynn said.

In other Nymex trading, June gasoline futures rose 9.21 cents to settle at $3.3965 a gallon after rising to a trading record of $3.4081, and June heating oil futures rose 13.34 cents to settle at $3.9084 a gallon after setting a new trading record of $3.9187.

June natural gas futures rose 27.5 cents to settle at $11.64 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The EIA said gasoline inventories also fell and took the market by surprise, while inventories of distillates, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, rose less than analysts surveyed by Platts had expected.

In London, July Brent crude rose $4.86 to settle at $132.70 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

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    Westchester Department of Consumer Protection:

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