Tumbling oil trades below $30 a barrel for first time in 12 years

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil fell briefly below the widely watched $30-per-barrel level on Tuesday, extending a selloff that has sliced almost 20 percent off prices this year amid deepening concerns about fragile Chinese demand and the absence of output restraint.

Prices settled down 3 percent, a seventh straight daily decline for oil. Traders have all but given up attempting to predict where the new-year rout will end, with momentum-driven dealing and overwhelmingly bearish sentiment engulfing the market. Some analysts warned of $20 a barrel; Standard Chartered said fund selling may not relent until it reaches $10.

By Tuesday, the crash had become almost self-fulfilling, with speculators too afraid to buy for fear of being burned by another false bottom. The slide appeared to first accelerate when it broke below the $32 area around 9 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

The $30 mark is both a psychological and financial threshold. In recent days, traders have poured money into $30 put options for expiration in February and March. Hedging activity usually picks up as oil prices near big a options level, as buyers and sellers defend their interests. More than 15,000 contracts traded on Tuesday and 18,000 contracts traded on Monday for the February contract, more than doubling Friday’s volumes.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude(WTI) CLc1 fell 97 cents to settle at $30.44 a barrel, a 3.1 percent loss, after touching a low of $29.93, which was last seen in December 2003.

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“The momentum is too strong to the bearish side, even if fundamentally nothing has changed,” said Dominick Chirichella, a senior partner at Energy Management Institute.

With prices now below break-even costs for many producers, particularly in the once-thriving U.S. shale patch, and the costly Canadian oil sands producers barely making $15 a barrel, an extended slump has caused financial pain to flare across the world, threatening corporate bankruptcies and fiscal strain.

Benchmark Brent crude LCOc1 fell 69 cents settle at $30.86, after bottoming at $30.34.

Prices firmed early in the day after a deadly suicide bombing rocked central Istanbul and Nigeria’s oil minister said a couple of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries members had requested an emergency meeting.

But they then nosedived anew after the United Arab Emirates oil minister quashed talk of a possible meeting, saying the group strategy was working. OPEC has rejected calls by some of its members to curb output, opting instead to pump full throttle to defend market share rather than shore up prices.

Oil has tumbled more nearly 17 percent this year alone, the worst seven-day run since the financial crisis. The long list of negative factors also includes the weakening economy and ailing stock market of No. 2 consumer China, the rising U.S. dollar, which makes oil more costly, and the surprising resilience of U.S. shale drillers in the face of the price slide.

Adding to supply fears, Iraq, the second-biggest OPEC producer, plans to export a record of around 3.63 million barrels per day in February, trade sources said.

International oil companies appear to be taking a hit from low prices. BP BP.L, which has seen its stock price fall by nearly 9 percent this year, announced plans on Tuesday to cut at least 4,000 jobs in the face of oil's sustained declines.

Royal Dutch Shell RDSa.L and ExxonMobil XOM.N meanwhile have seen their stock decline by 11 and 4 percent respectively.

After futures settled, data from the American Petroleum Institute showed U.S. crude stocks unexpectedly fell 3.9 million barrels last week as Cushing, Oklahoma, stocks dropped by 302,000 barrels. Both Brent and U.S. crude pared losses, rising some 30 cents in the few minutes on the release of the data. [API/S]

Additional reporting by Simon Falush in London, Henning Gloystein in Singapore and Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo; editing by Jason Neely and Alden Bentley