UPDATE 3-Brent falls below $125 on Libyan supply, China fuel hike

Tue Mar 20, 2012 3:44am EDT

Related Topics

* Libyan exports to hit 1.4 mln bpd in April

* China fuel price increase biggest in 33 months

* Coming Up: U.S. API weekly crude stocks; 2030 GMT (Adds analyst comment, updates prices)

By Francis Kan

SINGAPORE, March 20 (Reuters) - Brent crude fell below $125 a barrel on Tuesday as global supply concerns eased and a hike in Chinese fuel prices sparked fears of lower energy demand in the world's second-largest oil consumer.

Continued fears of supply disruptions in Iran were offset by news that Libyan oil production would return to levels last seen before the civil war in February, and data the day before which showed Saudi Arabia boosted oil exports in January.

Adding to worries about potential demand destruction, China said on Tuesday it was raising retail gasoline and diesel prices by between 6 and 7 percent, the biggest increase in nearly three years.

"The move might sap demand growth. Higher prices tend to discourage wasteful consumption," said Gordon Kwan, head of energy research at Mirae Asset Management in Hong Kong.

However, any impact is expected to be muted as China's economy continues to grow robustly, albeit at a slower pace.

Brent crude shed 90 cents to $124.81 a barrel by 0730 GMT, after settling 10 cents lower in the previous session.

U.S. crude was down 66 cents at $107.43. The benchmark had gained more than $1 on Monday after Valero announced it would shut down its 235,000 barrel per day (bpd) Aruba refinery, further tightening regional supplies ahead of the U.S. summer driving season.

The April contract expires at the end of Tuesday's session. U.S. May crude was trading at $108.00, down 56 cents.

SUPPLY GROWS

Exports from Saudi Arabia rose by 143,000 barrels per day (bpd) in January as the world's leading crude seller increased supplies to the United States while it has pledged to work "individually" and with other Gulf countries to return oil prices to "fair" levels.

"Coupled with increased production from other members, OPEC should be able to offset a complete loss of Iran's exports, but doing so would effectively push OPEC spare capacity to zero," analysts at Morgan Stanley said in a report on Tuesday.

Libya is also ramping up production as it plans to export almost 1.4 million bpd of crude oil in April, exceeding deliveries in February 2011 before the uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

This boost in global supply has eased concerns about the standoff between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme that has lifted oil prices this year and kept oil markets on edge.

Iran has agreed to a new round of talks with the West, but Western sanctions aimed at curtailing Tehran's nuclear ambitions have hit oil exports.

A potential loss of Iranian barrels has help underpin a 17 percent surge in crude prices this year, and could take the market higher when sanctions are enforced on July 1.

Societe Generale raised its price forecasts for Brent crude oil and U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude oil for 2012 and 2013, citing supply side issues such as tight crude stocks, low OPEC spare capacity and strong non-OPEC supply disruption.

"In addition, both actual and potential supply disruptions from Iran will be an important factor for the markets," analysts at Socgen said in a note on Monday.

The bank raised its 2012 Brent price forecast to $127.37 a barrel from $110. It also upped its WTI price to $117.15 per barrel, from $103 earlier.

CHINA DEMAND

The hike in China's fuel prices, its second in just over five weeks, was anticipated due to a spike in global crude prices, but the increase was bigger than expected, analysts said.

However, most said they did not expect the move would choke oil demand.

China last raised fuel prices in February, lifting gasoline and diesel rates 3 to 4 percent to record highs.

The government, worried about inflation, has often postponed raising prices in the past two years, meaning refiners often run at a loss as they are unable to pass on any increases in crude oil costs to consumers.

U.S. CRUDE STOCKS

U.S. commercial crude stockpiles are forecast to have climbed last week on higher imports and lower refinery activity, in line with seasonal patterns, a preliminary Reuters poll of analysts showed on Monday.

The survey of five analysts before weekly industry and government inventory reports for the week to March 16 produced an average forecast of a 2.4-million-barrel increase. (Additional reporting by Florence Tan; Editing by Ed Davies)

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