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Thursday, February 23, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Speculators blamed for rising oil, gas prices

By Kevin G. Hall
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — U.S. demand for oil and refined products — including gasoline — is down sharply from last year, so much that the United States has become a net exporter of gasoline, unable to consume all it makes.

Yet oil and gasoline prices are spiraling upward.

The price of oil topped $106 a barrel and a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline averaged $3.57 a gallon Tuesday — thanks again in no small part to rampant financial speculation on top of fears of supply disruptions.

The ostensible reason for climbing crude prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where contracts for future delivery of oil are traded, is growing fears of a military confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil passes. Other factors include last month's bankruptcy of Petroplus, a big European refiner, and a fire at BP's Cherry Point refinery, which produces 20 percent of Washington state's gasoline. Gas cost an average of $3.74 Tuesday in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett market Tuesday — up from $3.60 a week ago.

Another popular explanation Tuesday: trader relief that Greece received another bailout payment from Europe, raising hopes of a boost in oil demand there.

That explanation doesn't add up.

As oil and gasoline prices rose and slowed the U.S. economy last year, traders explained away the trend by saying oil and other commodities moved inverse to slumping stock prices. Oil prices and stock prices now seem to be moving in tandem — upward.

While tension over Iran has ratcheted up in the past few months, oil and gasoline prices have leapt far beyond conventional supply-and-demand variables. Financial speculators are piling into the market, torquing the Iranian fear factor into ever-higher prices.

"Speculation is now part of the DNA of oil prices. You cannot separate the two anymore. There is no demarcation," said Fadel Gheit, a 30-year veteran of energy markets and an analyst at Oppenheimer. "I still remain convinced oil prices are inflated."

Consider that light, sweet crude trading on the NYMEX changed hands at $79.20 a barrel four months ago but soared past $105 a barrel Tuesday, partly on news that Iran would halt shipment of oil to Britain and France. The problem: Those countries already had stopped buying Iranian oil. And Didier Houssin, the International Energy Agency's director for energy markets and security, noted a Wall Street Journal report that "there are alternative supplies that can make up for any loss of Iranian exports."

Still, oil prices shot up because crude trades in financial markets, where Wall Street firms and other big financial players dominate trading, even though they have no intention of taking possession of the oil.

Because oil prices are the biggest component in gasoline prices, pump prices are soaring. AAA on Tuesday said the nationwide average price for gasoline was $3.57, compared with $3.38 a month ago and $3.17 a year ago. It takes about $6 more to fill up the tank than it did this time last year.

Defining what percentage of today's high oil and gasoline prices is due to excessive speculation, driven by Iran fears, is something of a guessing game.

"I put the Iran security premium at about $8 to $10 (a barrel) at this point, which still puts crude at about $90 or $95," said John Kilduff, a veteran energy analyst at AgainCapital in New York.

The fear premium is the froth above what prices would be absent fears of a supply disruption — somewhere in the $80 to $85 range for a barrel of oil. Even with the inflated cost from Iran fears, prices are at least $10 more than what demand fundamentals would dictate.

Why? Financial speculators.

What would the price of oil be if left to conventional supply-and-demand fundamentals? Canada is the largest supplier of imported oil to the United States, which produces more than half the oil it consumes. Production and delivery costs for a barrel of Canadian oil are about $75 a barrel. The market-fundamentals cost for a barrel is in that ballpark; above that, speculation sets the prices.

"It's as simple as that," said Gheit, who has testified before Congress and called for regulatory limits on speculation in commodities.

Financial speculators historically accounted for about 30 percent of oil trading in commodity markets; producers and end users made up about 70 percent. Today, it's almost the reverse.

A review of data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates oil trading, shows producers and merchants made up 36 percent and speculators 64 percent of all contracts traded in the week ending Feb. 14.

Not surprisingly, big Wall Street traders Tuesday projected oil will exceed $112 a barrel; some, such as Swiss giant Vitol, even suggested $150-a-barrel oil is coming. When they dominate the market, speculators' bids can make their prophecies self-fulfilling.

"These people are not there to be heroes. They are there to make money. It's our fault because we are allowing them to do that," Gheit said. "... I've been in this business 30 years, and I can tell you I think this is smoke and mirrors."

What's indisputable is that oil and gasoline are not in short supply, and that demand is weak. That was clear in the latest weekly energy market update by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) — for the week ending Feb. 10.

"Total products supplied over the last four-week period have averaged 18.3 million barrels per day, down by 4.6 percent compared to the similar period last year. Over the last four weeks, motor gasoline product supplied has averaged nearly 8.1 million barrels per day, down by 6.4 percent from the same period last year," said the EIA, the statistical arm of the Energy Department.

Inventories of stored oil also are unusually high, the EIA said.

Hence, no shortage to explain soaring prices.

In fact, U.S. demand and consumption patterns are so abnormal, when compared to recent decades, that oil and gasoline both are being exported. (U.S. gasoline fetches a higher price as an export.)

Exports of U.S. refined product averaged 2.928 million barrels per day over the four weeks ending on Feb. 10, up 33.7 percent from a year ago. Similarly, the United States exported no oil in the four weeks ending Feb. 11, 2011, but 37,000 barrels in the four-week period ending Feb. 10.

"To the extent that there is this export market that wasn't there before, it is certainly ... keeping prices higher than they otherwise would be," Kilduff said. "Exports were not material. Now they are becoming material."

In California, where gasoline prices have topped $4 a gallon, Charles Langley of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego said consumers have a right to be angry.

"Consumers have done what we're supposed to do [by reducing demand], and the way the refineries in California responded is by producing less gasoline," he said. "And at the same time they began exporting their surplus to South America because this industry thrives on tight supply.

"The industry model is to sell half as much fuel for twice as much money."

The Tribune Washington bureau and Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.

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