After weeks of wild fluctuations, the price of crude oil appears to be settling in for an extended stay at more than $30 a barrel -- a figure that is nearly twice as high as the price last spring and is now seen by many analysts as the likely minimum for months to come.

With imports declining as the shutdown of Iraqi and Kuwaiti production begins to take effect, the price reflects a widespread expectation of supply shortfalls beginning next month, according to industry analysts.

Even if total world oil production is sufficient, many analysts say, oil companies are likely to hold back some available supplies, rather than draw down inventories.

The closing price of crude oil for October delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday was $33.18 a barrel, down 23 cents from Tuesday's closing price. It was the ninth straight trading day in which the closing price exceeded $30.

As has been true since Iraq touched off the latest oil crisis by invading Kuwait on Aug. 2, the price is not being driven up by an overall shortage of oil or refined products.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) reported Tuesday that U.S. crude oil inventories at the end of last week were 369.76 million barrels. For the same week in 1989, inventories stood at 328.96 million barrels.

With U.S. refineries at full production, stocks of jet fuel and heating oil are also higher than they were a year ago, and gasoline inventories are down only marginally.

But the key figure in the weekly API report was crude oil imports: 6.03 million barrels a day last week, compared with 6.95 million the week before. This decline appeared to reinforce the industry's belief that oil from Iraq and Kuwait, which has been arriving all along in tankers that sailed before the invasion, is beginning to dry up.

"The mid-$30s range is what's settling in now," said Tom Bentz, trading director at United Energy Inc. in New York.

"It does seem like this $30 to $35 level is the new range. Until recently it was more on tension than anything else, but now you're seeing fundamentals {of supply and demand} taking hold."

"We're beginning to see now what has been developing over a period of time," said Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens.

"Supply and demand have been fairly well in balance in the world, but by the fourth quarter you'll be running 1.5 {million} to 2 million barrels a day behind demand."

Analysts at Washington-based Petroleum Finance Co. predicted that prices will remain above $30 "until the Persian Gulf crisis is resolved."

They put the probable price range at $30 to $35 a barrel, depending on the level of anxiety among traders on any given day. The monthly oil market report published by Energy Security Analysis Inc., also of Washington, gave a similar estimate.

At a Senate Energy Committee hearing last week, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins restated the Bush administration's reluctance to open the federal government's 590-million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve except in a true supply emergency.

He called it "a cherished reserve" and said, "We don't want to use it unless absolutely necessary."

Some oil analysts believe that commercial holders of oil -- producers, refiners and traders -- will behave the same way, holding back oil that they could sell for fear of getting caught short as prices continue to rise.

Bidding against each other for what oil is available, they keep the price up.

"The moment Iraq invaded Kuwait, what had been an excessive large crude inventory ceased being a surplus" because of doubts about replacing it as it was used up, according to Energy Security Analysis's "Stockwatch" report.

"Companies may indeed draw it down ... but as long as the crisis simmers they will be willing to pay ever high prices to mitigate that drawdown."

Even if the International Energy Agency agrees at a meeting late this month that its member nations -- included the United States -- should begin selling their government-held oil reserves, the buyers will be commercial oil companies that may decide to hold on to it, according to an analysis by the London-based Centre for Global Energy Studies, founded by former Saudi Arabian oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani.