Oil prices closed down today after touching their lowest level this year, pressured by a huge jump in U.S. crude inventories and more signs...
NEW YORK — Oil prices closed down today after touching their lowest level this year, pressured by a huge jump in U.S. crude inventories and more signs of dwindling demand.
Light, sweet crude for November delivery fell $1.11 to settle at $88.95 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil at one point fell to $86.05 — the lowest price since Dec. 6, 2007.
Crude has now fallen about 40 percent since surging to an all-time record $147.27 a barrel on July 11.
In a rare dose of good news for consumers, falling oil prices are starting to weigh on pump prices. A gallon of regular fell about 3 cents overnight to a new national average of $3.447 a gallon today, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.
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That’s 16 percent lower than the all-time record average of $4.114 set July 17, but well above the year-ago average of $2.765 a gallon. Still, should oil keep sliding, analysts say pump prices could edge back below $3 a gallon sometime next month.
Crude’s losses today came as U.S. energy supplies swelled, reflecting both persistently weak demand and a recovery of Gulf Coast energy output following shutdowns prompted by Hurricane Ike last month.
U.S. crude inventories jumped by 8.1 million barrels last week while gasoline stocks surged 7.2 million barrels, the Energy Information Administration said in its weekly inventory report. Both increases far exceeded expectations. Analysts surveyed by energy research firm Platts had expected a 1 million barrel drop in crude supplies and a 2 million barrel build in gasoline stocks.
Meanwhile, demand for gasoline over the four weeks ended Oct. 3 was 5.3 percent lower than a year earlier, averaging nearly 8.8 million barrels a day, according to the EIA report.
Oil market traders bid down the price for oil on the news, seeing the excess supplies as another sign that U.S. consumers and business are cutting back on energy use.
“There is still a lot of demand concerns in the global economy and that’s going to continue translating into a struggling energy market,” said Tom Bentz, analyst at BNP Paribas Commodity Futures in New York.
But today’s losses were limited by growing speculation that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries could cut output to keep prices from falling too hard. OPEC officials, worried about declining oil revenue, in recent days have urged members of the cartel not to pump too much crude in a bid to keep prices above $100.
“As prices move toward $80, you’ll see at the very least some quiet cuts from OPEC members,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research in Winchester, Mass. “If the market really looks like it’s going to remain weak, you’ll see an official OPEC notice” to cut supplies.
Analysts are split over how an OPEC output cut would impact oil prices. Some believe it could put a floor under falling prices by tightening world supplies, while others believe a deteriorating global economy will keep demand and therefore prices low.
OPEC’s decision last month to cut production by 520,000 barrels failed to halt oil’s slide. The 13-member body is next scheduled to meet Dec. 17 in Algeria.
“OPEC has always been better at propping up the market when supplies are tight. They have a difficult time supporting prices when global demand is declining sharply, and that’s the situation we’re currently in,” said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Ill.
Oil prices came off their lows earlier in the day after the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the globe cut their key interest rates by half a percentage point in the latest emergency measure to stave off a world economic meltdown.
The move came after a $700 billion U.S. financial bailout plan approved last Friday failed to soothe investors worried about a deepening economic malaise.
In its weekly report, the EIA said inventories of distillate fuel, which include diesel and heating oil, fell 500,000 barrels to 122.6 million barrels for the week ended Oct. 3. Analysts expected distillate stocks to rise by 1 million barrels.
At the same time, U.S. refineries ran at 80.9 percent of total capacity on average, a gain of 8.6 percentage points from the prior week. Analysts expected capacity to rise 6 percent to 78.3 percent.
Reflecting lessened demand in the U.S., Vienna’s JBC Energy cited MasterCard Advisors latest report, noting that drivers had cut back by more than 6 percentage points year on year — and by 5 percentage points compared with the previous week.