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Mixed Signals Confuse Oil Price Picture

By George Jahn
Associated Press
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page E03

VIENNA, Jan. 17 -- With crude futures at their highest since the end of November and the New York Mercantile Exchange closed, oil prices looked to overseas markets for direction Monday.

Analysts said cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere and the linked draw on heating oil would underpin prices in the coming weeks, but they suggested the approach of reduced demand as spring comes to the Western Hemisphere could help lower levels.

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Brent crude closed up 7 cents, at $45.03 a barrel, on the International Petroleum Exchange.

On Friday, light, sweet crude for February delivery rose 34 cents, to $48.38 a barrel, on the Nymex. Heating oil gained more than 4 cents, to $1.3509 a gallon.

"The market is very well-supported," said Esa Ramasamy, oil editorial manager at the energy reporting service Platts. "If there's no increase in supplies, the prices would hold up."

Outages in the North Sea and Nigeria, along with continuing production shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico, have kept nearly 1 million barrels a day off the market.

There was some good news for consumers Monday.

Shell officials said a Nigerian subsidiary restarted oil production at five platforms shut down last month by protests in the troubled Niger Delta, even though a pipeline leak cut output elsewhere.

And three offshore oil fields that had been shut down after they were damaged in accidents were restarted over the weekend, including full production from the 140,000-barrel-per-day Draugen field in the Norwegian Sea.

But continuing sabotage attacks on Iraq's northern pipeline infrastructure and power problems in the south continue to reduce exports. Worries that violence could escalate before elections, set for Jan. 30, have added a premium.

This all coincides with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' output cut of 1 million barrels per day.

OPEC ministers are scheduled to meet Jan. 30 to discuss whether further cuts may be necessary. Oil demand falls in the second quarter of the year with the end of the northern winter.

Analysts said the meeting would have to reconcile the present cold weather and relative scarcity of distillate fuels with the traditional springtime drop in demand, along with predictions of reduced world economic growth.

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