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NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - Oil surged above $91 a barrel to its highest price in more than two years on Thursday, as OPEC member Libya's apparent lack of concern over prices prompted some analysts to call for a new year's run at $100.
With crude reaching back-to-back 26-month highs, ultra-cold weather stoking demand and depleting U.S. stockpiles at the fastest pace in 12 years, traders are now looking for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to signal when it might begin pumping more crude.
But Libya's top oil official, one of OPEC's most hawkish members toward oil prices, appeared unconcerned by the gains, which have lifted prices more than 20 percent in three months as fundamentals turn more positive and investors factor in an improving economic outlook for next year.
"It's fair to say it (the price) is about right, but still I think that it needs to improve a little bit more. About $100 would be a fair price for the time being," Libya's National Oil Corp Chairman Shokri Ghanem told Reuters in Cairo ahead of a meeting of Arab oil exporting countries.
"I think current oil prices are reflecting the situation in the market which is a well-balanced market," he said.
U.S. crude for February rose $1.03 to settle at $91.51 a barrel, the highest price since October 7, 2008 when oil prices were crashing from their $147 record as the world's financial industry reeled and investors fled risky assets. Prices hit an intraday peak of $91.63 a barrel.
ICE Brent crude settled at $94.25, up 60 cents from Wednesday after a midsession burst of gains triggered by buy-stops and as the dollar fell.
Although some said low trading volume on the last day before Christmas likely exaggerated gains, few expected to see a correction as traders looked forward to a fresh infusion of institutional investment in the booming commodities sector. U.S. crude traded about 220,000 contracts, one-third the norm.
"I don't think we'll pull back much before February. We'll see some fund allocations next month so we should continue to see support," said Antoine Halff of Newedge Group in New York.
So far economic news is supporting the gains too. Data on Thursday showed new U.S. claims for jobless benefits dipped last week and consumer spending increased in November for a fifth straight month, reinforcing views of a solid economic growth pace in the fourth quarter.
And while gasoline prices now back above $3 a gallon could begin to erode spending in the still fragile U.S. economy, the fact that they remain far below their $4 peak two years ago suggests they will not pack the same psychological punch.
Nearly three years after oil first traded at $100, demand is again rising swiftly, but one key factor has changed significantly. Unlike the start of 2008, when OPEC was already pumping flat out, the group now has a sizable amount of idle capacity it could use to douse the rally -- if it chooses.
A series of comments in recent months suggest the cartel is now ready to tolerate a price higher than the $70-to-$80 band it has publicly supported for the past two years, and analysts say that means it may wait too long before pumping more oil.
"With OPEC set to be reactive rather than proactive, the route to $100 appears fairly unobstructed at this time," said analysts at Barclays Capital.
Oil traders will be looking for comments this weekend from other core Gulf OPEC ministers to see if they are more concerned than they were two weeks ago when the group decided at its meeting in Quito, Ecuador, to maintain supply quotas.
The meeting of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) in Cairo will not set policy, and OPEC's next formal meeting is not scheduled until June.
But some analysts say they expect the group to quietly lift output prior to that by leaking more oil than quotas permit, and few expect a rerun of 2008's explosive rise.
"We're not back to before the 2008 crisis, this is not the same market... We have a lot more spare capacity, and demand growth is tentative," said Halff.
Unusually cold weather in the United States and Europe has helped to spur the latest leg of a more than 30 percent rally from this year's low struck in May.
After a contraction in demand following the global economic recession, fuel use has begun to rebound and is expected to continue growing next year, taking absolute oil consumption to an all-time high. But the rate of growth will still be lower than a peak hit in 2004.
"Markets still have an upward bias. They just took out the recent and earlier highs and ran a few stops. Economic optimism, cold weather and crude stock drawdown are supporting in the background," said Tom Bentz, broker at BNP Paribas Commodity Futures in New York.
Additional reporting by Randolph Fabi and Seng Li Peng in Singapore, Sherine El Madany in Cairo and Selam Gebrekidan in New York; editing Alden Bentley