Oil prices settle 2% higher, lifted by rising Middle East tensions

Crude-oil futures rose Friday, settling higher for the week, after a strike by Israeli forces a day earlier was said to have killed more than 100 Palestinians waiting for aid in Gaza, raising tensions in the oil-rich Middle East.

Traders also waited to hear any news on whether major oil producers will extend voluntary production cuts, which expire at the end of March.

Price moves

  • West Texas Intermediate crude
    for April delivery

    rose $1.71, or 2.2%, to settle at $79.97 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices based on the front month ended nearly 4.6% higher for the week after finishing 3.2% higher for the month of February, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

  • May Brent crude

    the global benchmark, climbed $1.64, or 2%, at $83.55 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, with the contract ending 3.4% higher for the week.

  • April gasoline
    added 1.3% to $2.61 a gallon, up 4.2% for the week, while April heating oil
    tacked on nearly 2.1% to $2.70 a gallon, gaining 2.4% for the week.

  • Natural gas for April delivery
    settled at $1.84 per million British thermal units, down 1.3% Friday. Prices saw an 8% gain on the week, after posting a February loss of over 11%.

Market drivers

“Geopolitical tensions have become an increasingly bullish influence on the market as we move further into 2024,” Tyler Richey, co-editor at Sevens Report Research, told MarketWatch.

Gaza health officials said scores of Palestinian civilians were killed Thursday after Israeli troops opened fire near an aid convoy, the Wall Street Journal reported.

President Joe Biden said the deaths would complicate talks around a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, according to news reports. Biden had said earlier this week that he had seen prospects for an agreement as early as Monday.

Read: War wasn’t enough to budge oil prices. Here’s what could spark a big move.

Investors are also awaiting a decision by members of OPEC+ — made up of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies — on whether to extend voluntary production cuts.

“Sticking to the voluntary production cuts until the end of the year would be a strong signal and should therefore be seen as price-positive” because the oil market would remain tight until the year’s end, Carsten Fritsch, commodity strategist at Commerzbank, said in a note. An extension only into the second quarter is “likely to be priced in and should therefore not move prices significantly.”

See: Gas prices are rising again. Here’s why you shouldn’t worry, one analyst says.

OPEC+ countries were considering an extension of the cuts, which amount to 2.2 million barrels a day, into the second quarter, Reuters reported earlier this week, with some officials pointing to the prospect of an extension to the year’s end. The report said a decision on an extension is expected in the first week of March.

The oil market is “well balanced,” with prices well supported in the high $70s, and a path to the $80s in sight if “OPEC+ confirms rollover of its cuts and once the [U.S. Federal Reserve] clarifies timing for rate cuts,” said Manish Raj, managing director at Velandera Energy Partners.

The high $70s oil price is ‘so attractive for U.S. producers that drilling rigs are firing on all cylinders, creating a nuance for OPEC, who is annoyed by seeing its lunch eaten by the U.S. shale.’

— Manish Raj, Velandera Energy Partners

The high-$70s oil price is “so attractive for U.S. producers that drilling rigs are firing on all cylinders, creating a nuance for OPEC, who is annoyed by seeing its lunch eaten by the U.S. shale,” he told MarketWatch. 

Baker Hughes Co.
on Friday reported a second straight weekly rise in the number of active U.S. rigs drilling for oil, which were up by three to 506 this week. That implies an upcoming rise in oil production.

“OPEC has found itself in a hole that keeps getting deeper” with more U.S. shale production, “and yet OPEC has no choice but to keep extending its cuts that makes even more room for the U.S. shale,” said Raj.

Also see: China’s grip on rare earth elements is slipping. Investors should take note.

Meanwhile, Thursday’s U.S. inflation data was a “relief since it did not top estimates like the CPI report did earlier in February,” said Sevens Report Research’s Richey. That eases some of the hawkish Federal Reserve policy worries and is “helping soft-landing optimism return to markets, a demand-side positive influence for oil.” 

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