Oil down on Libya and Japan uncertainty

Reuters, Tuesday 29 Mar 2011

Mideast risk premium may be balanced by Japanese demand drop, say analysts

Oil prices slipped on Tuesday for a third consecutive day as rebels and government troops battled for supremacy in Libya and more bad news from Japan's stricken nuclear plant sapped investor confidence.

Expectations of a relatively swift restoration of Libyan oil to the market had been building after the rebels mounted a two-day charge westwards, retaking oil towns, but momentum stalled on Tuesday as they hit fierce opposition around Nawfaliyah, 120km east of Sirte.

In Japan, plutonium was found in soil at the Fuskushima nuclear complex, raising concerns it had breached the containment system of reactor No. 3, undermining hopes the workers were getting the plant under control.

Brent crude for May delivery was 65 cents lower at US$114.15 by 1501 EET, after earlier falling more than a dollar. US light crude dropped a dollar before paring losses to $103.10, 88 cents down on the session.

Analysts said Japan's lack of progress in containing the nuclear crisis was likely to delay the world's third-largest oil user's return to full industrial strength, but the downside for oil prices could be limited by unrest in the Middle East.

"We have two factors that are countervailing," said Harry Tchilinguirian, analyst at BNP Paribas.

"There is a risk premium in the Middle East built in on risk of further contagion. On the other hand we have the fact Japan is a major component of the global supply chain, so the potential for a price correction in the second quarter remains."

Yemeni protesters demanded the imminent removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Tuesday and blamed him for violence that has raised US fears of chaos that could be exploited by militant groups including al Qaeda.

Volume for US crude fell on Monday to the lowest this year, with trade limited in part, analysts said, by concern about the prognosis for Japan that also capped trading volumes in European and U.S. equity markets.

To offset Libyan disruption, Saudi Arabia has increased output to around 9 million barrels per day (bpd), around one million bpd more than its OPEC target, which analysts have said has put a strain on its spare capacity.

As the kingdom scrambled to maintain its 12.5 million bpd oil capacity, specialist energy bank Simmons & Co said on Monday Saudi Arabia planned to expand its drilling rig count by 28 per cent.

"It's probably more bullish than bearish," said Amrita Sen, analyst at Barclays Capital. "The flip side is there is less spare capacity."

Even though it has increased supplies, some of the extra Saudi oil has gone into stocks and the kingdom has repeatedly said the market is well-supplied.

Inventories in the United States have been particularly ample, which has helped to keep the price of U.S. crude around $10 below that of European Brent.

Ahead of weekly inventory data for release on Tuesday and Wednesday, a preliminary Reuters survey of analysts found crude oil stocks probably rose in the United States last week in line with seasonal trends.

Higher imports were expected to meet demand as refiners brought units back from maintenance, analysts said.

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