Oil prices rose to fresh two-year highs around $96 a barrel Wednesday amid concerns that a violent power struggle in Libya could disrupt supplies, with experts warning the next weeks and months would prove highly volatile.
If the chaos spreads to other bigger energy producers in the region, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, price fluctuations could became as sharp as those in the 1970s, when an OPEC embargo caused gasoline shortages in the U.S., analysts warned.
By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark crude for April delivery was up 74 cents at $96.16 a barrel — the highest since October 2008 — in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract jumped $5.71, or 6.4 percent, to settle at $95.42 on Tuesday.
In London, Brent crude for April delivery gained $1.65 to $107.43 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on Tuesday called on supporters to attack anti-government demonstrators as protesters backed by defecting army units claimed control over almost the entire eastern half of the country, including several oil-producing areas.
Nearly 300 people have been killed so far in the rebellion, according to a partial count by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Libya holds the most oil reserves in Africa and is the world’s 15th-largest crude exporter at 1.2 million barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“In total, some 300,000 barrels per day is now offline, but … the numbers could rise as we still do not have a clear idea how much oil is being impacted by striking Libyan workers deep inside the country,” said Edward Meir, senior commodity analyst at MF Global in New York.
As the Libyan government cracked down on protesters, Western oil companies including Eni and Repsol-YPF temporarily suspended oil production in the country. BP has started evacuating workers.
“The protests in Libya are the first to meaningfully put oil supplies at risk,” Goldman Sachs said in a report.
Goldman, which is forecasting benchmark crude to rise to $103 within 12 months, said recent violent protests in Bahrain show that wealthy oil-rich Gulf states are also vulnerable to political upheaval.
“These recent developments in Libya and Bahrain increase the risks of major supply disruptions,” it said.
The crisis in the Middle East and North Africa began in January with the overthrow of Tunisia ruler Ben Ali, spread to Egypt and the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and has sparked protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan.
Traders are watching closely protests in Iran, OPEC’s second largest producer, and for signs of any unrest in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude exporter. Analysts fear that further oil price spikes could fuel inflation, undermining consumer spending and global economic growth.
“Saudi Arabia, itself an authoritarian state, now finds itself surrounded by countries in the throes of revolution,” energy analyst Richard Soultanian of NUS Consulting said.
“Should the current situation continue to deteriorate, it has the potential to not only roil the energy markets but also upend the nascent and accelerated recoveries in developed and emerging markets.”
Some observers expect a return to the sharp fluctuations of oil prices seen in the 1970s.
“Today’s situation is reminiscent of the 1970s,” said Anthony Michael Sabino, a professor at St. John’s University’s college of business. “The price of oil will now jump in direct relation to one of its oldest barometers — political tension in the Middle East.”
“Expect nothing but a roller coaster ride for a few weeks, if not months.”
Also looming over markets is the impact of higher oil prices on the still fragile economic recovery in many countries.
“While an interruption to Libya crude production would be definitely bullish oil prices … the economic recovery can be put in question if oil prices were to return to the summer 2008 levels,” said Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland. “This remains for now a headline market until we can better assess the amount of crude supply disruption in Libya and the response from the IEA and Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali Naimi was quoted as saying that his country’s production capacity of 12.5 million barrels per day could help “compensate for any shortage in international supplies.” Saudi Arabia currently produces around 8 million barrels per day.
The market, meanwhile, is also awaiting fresh information on U.S. oil stockpiles, which are near all-time highs and have helped widen the spread between the Nymex and Brent contracts. Brent’s higher perceived vulnerability to possible supply disruptions in Africa and the Middle East are also contributing to its premium.
Data for the week ending Feb. 18 is expected to show builds of 1.4 million barrels in crude oil stocks and a rise of 950,000 barrels in gasoline stocks, according to a survey of analysts by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.
The American Petroleum Institute will release its report on oil stocks later Wednesday, while the report from the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration — the market benchmark — will be out on Thursday.
In other Nymex trading in March contracts, heating oil rose 2.45 cents to $2.8169 a gallon and gasoline gained 3.17 cents to $2.6338 a gallon. Natural gas futures were down 3.5 cents at $3.832 per 1,000 cubic feet.