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OIL FUTURES: Crude Rises As Pro-Gadhafi Forces Advance In Libya

Crude-oil futures rose in Asia Thursday, as an advance by Libyan forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi raised the prospect of more air strikes, while a speech by the president of Syria looked likely to intensify tensions there.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, light, sweet crude futures for delivery in May traded at $104.76 a barrel at 0600 GMT, up 49 cents in the Globex electronic session. May Brent crude on London’s ICE Futures exchange rose 48 cents to $115.61 a barrel.

Ongoing tensions in the Middle East and North Africa helped traders shrug off data showing U.S. oil inventories rising to a new high at Cushing, Okla., which is the main delivery point for Nymex crude. The U.S. Department of Energy said Wednesday that crude stockpiles at Cushing last week hit a record 41.9 million barrels.

“We still look for a trading range between about the $102 and $107 levels to continue well into next week with the $104-$105 region providing a sweet spot during the next couple of days,” said Jim Ritterbusch, president of oil trading advisory firm Ritterbusch & Associates.

Fresh signs that global oil demand is strengthening could come Friday, when the U.S. issues non-farm payrolls data. The median forecast of economists is for a gain of 195,000 jobs, broadly consistent with the ADP National Employment Report issued in the U.S. overnight.

Rising demand is exposing weaknesses in the global oil supply chain, exacerbated by the Libyan unrest. Saudi Arabia has begun supplying European oil companies with high-quality crude in an effort to replace Libyan exports, which had totaled 1.3 million barrels a day prior to the popular uprising last month.

Saudi Arabian Oil Co. has sold three cargoes of light, sweet crude for March and April delivery–two to Austrian oil company OMV AG (OMV.VI) and one to U.K. energy giant BP PLC (BP). Each order was for a Suezmax tanker, which can carry up to 1 million barrels of crude.

However, traders worry that tensions spreading more widely in the Middle East and North Africa could take more oil production offline. Barclays Capital estimates the lost Libyan barrels have squeezed global spare capacity to around 3 million barrels a day.

In Libya, pro-Gadhafi forces continued to push rebels out of positions along coastal oil towns Wednesday, further delaying the rebel drive on Tripoli and testing the limits of the coalition air strikes as the alliance considers whether to arm the rebels.

Rebels retreated from the refinery port of Ras Lanuf and Gadhafi’s forces were shelling Brega, another oil port to the east.

“The situation in Libya still hasn’t been resolved and that’s creating some uncertainty about how each development should be interpreted,” said Yingxu Yu, a Singapore-based oil analyst at Barclays Capital. “The market is adopting a wait-and-see approach.”

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad offered no concrete concessions in a much-anticipated speech to Parliament and blamed foreign enemies for plotting unrest in the country through a series of antigovernment demonstrations over the past two weeks.

The speech was a disappointment for dissidents hoping that more than a week of unrest would yield concrete political change. On March 24, the government said it would lift the emergency law in place for nearly 50 years, increase wages for public workers and liberalize the media.

In currency markets, the euro was stronger against the greenback on the back of expectations March euro-zone inflation data due later in the global session will show continuing inflationary pressures, bolstering the prospect of a European Central Bank interest-rate hike at next week’s policy meeting.

The euro was at $1.4150, from $1.4127 in late New York trade Wednesday.

At 0613 GMT, oil product futures were up.

Nymex reformulated gasoline blendstock for April–the benchmark gasoline contract–rose 100 points to $3.0740 a gallon, while April heating oil traded at $3.0500, 104 points higher.

ICE gasoil for April changed hands at $980.25 a metric ton, up $2.25 from Wednesday’s settlement.


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