Traditional Energy

Oil to hit $100 a barrel this year?

July 23 (Bloomberg) — The $100-a-barrel oil that Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said would prevail by 2009 may be only a few months away.

Jeffrey Currie, a London-based commodity analyst at the world’s biggest securities firm, says $95 crude is likely this year unless OPEC unexpectedly increases production, and declining inventories are raising the chances for $100 oil. Jeff Rubin at CIBC World Markets predicts $100 a barrel as soon as next year.

“We’re only a headline of significance away from $100 oil,” said John Kilduff, an analyst in the New York office of futures broker Man Financial Inc. “The unrelenting pressure of increased demand has left the market a coiled spring.” New disruptions of Nigerian or Iraqi supplies, or any military strike against Iran, might trigger the rise, Kilduff said in a July 20 interview.

Higher prices will increase revenue for energy producers from Exxon Mobil Corp. to PetroChina Co., while eroding profit at airlines including EasyJet Plc and railroads such as Union Pacific Corp. The U.S. and other oil-importing nations risk accelerating inflation, while higher energy costs threaten to restrain growth.

Benchmark crude oil futures ended last week at $75.57 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up 51 percent since mid- January and twice the level of early 2003. A record number of options have been sold that give the buyer the right to buy crude oil at $100. The contracts, covering 50 million barrels, only pay off should oil go above the target price. September crude futures fell 89 cents to $74.90 at 11:16 a.m. in New York today.

Goldman’s View

Arjun Murti, a New York-based Goldman Sachs analyst who covers oil producers and refiners, roiled markets in March 2005 with a report saying prices could touch $105 a barrel during a “super spike” period because demand was stronger than anticipated. Price swings might also go as low as $50, Murti said at the time.

Currie, Goldman’s global head of commodities research in London, is predicting that oil prices will probably touch a record and stay at unprecedented levels for months or years. The all-time high for Nymex crude futures is $78.40 a barrel on July 14, 2006.

“Ultimately, the key to the outlook going forward is when will Saudi Arabia ramp up production,” he said in an interview. “If you have a situation in which inventories globally get drawn to critically low levels, the volatility in this market is likely to explode, which significantly increases the probability of $100 oil.” Oil might slip to $73.50 if OPEC were to start producing more now, he said.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is scheduled to next meet in September. No members have called for a gathering before then. A decision to raise output at that time would lead to greater supplies toward the end of the year.

Accelerating Demand

The failure of near-record fuel prices to restrain global oil demand growth is what concerns Rubin, chief strategist at the brokerage unit of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto.

“Prices have doubled, and demand is alive and well and accelerating,” Rubin said in a July 18 interview. “The argument that rising prices would choke demand and bring increased output is falling to the wayside.”

A National Petroleum Council study led by former Exxon Mobil chairman Lee Raymond, released last week, predicted a growing gap between production and demand for oil and gas during the next two decades. As recently as 2005, Raymond said oil prices had probably peaked and dismissed the possibility that supply and demand could not be brought back into balance.

“There are questions about whether the oil industry can keep up with demand,” U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said last week, commenting on the Petroleum Council report.

Gasoline Sales Rise

Gasoline pump prices averaging more than $3 a gallon across the U.S., the consumer of 25 percent of the world’s oil, haven’t dented sales. Deliveries of gasoline were a record 9.23 million barrels a day in the first half of this year, according to a July 18 report from the American Petroleum Institute in Washington.

“It appears that high prices are acceptable to the American consumer,” said Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “People want the house with a yard and white-picket fence so they are moving further and further out of the cities. They have to just get up earlier and drive further.”

Outside the U.S., demand increases are being led by India and China, where growing economies mean more cars and trucks and more factories that burn oil and gas.

Consumption between now and the end of the year will increase by 3.6 million barrels a day because of seasonal shifts. The rise is equal to the daily production of Kuwait and Oman combined, and it comes after OPEC twice in the past year cut production to support prices.

Rising Costs

The cost of finding and pumping oil is rising steadily, convincing analysts such as Rubin and Deutsche Bank AG chief energy economist Adam Sieminski that higher prices will last. Shortages of deepwater drilling ships and rigs has pushed daily rents to records, and the skilled workers needed to run rigs, weld pipes, pilot vessels, fix refineries and build oil-sands projects command ever-higher wages.

“Three years ago we were calling for $30 oil, then $35 and then $40 oil,” said New York-based Sieminski, who last week raised his forecast for the average price of oil in 2010 to $60 a barrel from $45.

“I’ve gotten tired of increasing these forecasts in $5 increments,” Sieminski said in an interview. “Something has happened. Costs have continued to escalate, and the geopolitical situation has gotten worse.”

The $60-a-barrel forecast for 2010 is 15 percent higher than the average analyst forecast, Sieminski said. The projection probably will turn out to be too low, he said.

Oil prices could triple in three months to more than $200 a barrel, given the right circumstances, according to Matthew Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Co., a Houston investment bank.

`Still Cheap’

“Oil is still cheap,” Simmons said. “In the 20th century, with a few exceptions, oil was almost free. The only exceptions were during 1973, 1979 and when Iraq invaded Kuwait.”

Prices rose in 1974 after an oil embargo that followed the Arab-Israeli war and from 1979 through 1981 after Iran cut oil exports. The average cost of oil used by U.S. refiners was $35.24 a barrel in 1981, according to the Energy Department, or $79.67 in today’s dollars.

While crude oil prices are approaching the records they set at this time last year, not everyone is convinced $100 crude will happen. From their peak, oil futures began a six-month slide. They got below $50 on Jan. 18 before rebounding.

“The risk parameters are somewhat different than a year ago, however the overall situation is similar,” said Tim Evans, an energy analyst at Citigroup Inc. in New York who correctly predicted a year ago that oil prices were at a peak. “We’ve priced in a shortage that is not evident yet.”

Pickens’ Opinion

A pullout from Iraq may be the event that pushes oil to $100 a barrel, according to Boone Pickens, the Dallas hedge fund manager who has joined Forbes Magazine’s list of billionaires because of his bullish bets on energy prices. Pickens predicted a year ago that $100 oil would probably occur by now. Today he is looking for $80 within six months, and he says growing chaos in Iraq would be a bad sign. “That could run prices pretty high,” he said.

Goldman Sachs’s Currie also notes similarities to a year ago, with global inventories at about the same level and U.S. government data showing an increasing bet on higher prices.

“At face value this market is strikingly similar to a year ago,” Currie said. “What is different? Supply is down a million barrels a day, demand is up a million barrels a day. The market is in a deficit.”

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