Oil prices fall below $61

London, January 3:

Oil prices fell on Wednesday on mild winter weather in the United States, a major consumer of heating oil and gasoline.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery dropped 73 cents to $60.32 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange at midday in Europe. The Brent crude contract for February delivery fell 39 cents to $60.05 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

“The warm US weather is expected to depress heating fuel demand,” said Victor Shum, an analyst with Purvin & Gertz in Singapore.

In New York, temperatures on the first day of 2007 hit a peak of 54 degrees Fahrenheit, or 12 degrees Celsius - much warmer than normal.

But many analysts expect crude oil futures to stay on average above $60 a barrel this year because of robust demand growth in Asia and the Middle East, efforts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to trim supply and market-rattling instability in suppliers such as Nigeria and Iraq.

OPEC’s concerns that high global stockpiles and sluggish demand would undermine prices led it to agree on a 1.2 million barrel-a-day crude oil output cut in November and a further 500,000 barrel-a-day cut to take place Feb. 1.

“For 2007, oil pricing is likely going to be stubbornly high, with the OPEC group looking like it will want to defend a $55 floor under prices,” Shum said, adding he projected crude futures would sit in the $60-$65 a barrel range.

“With ongoing geopolitical concerns such as Iran and Nigeria, the market will also tend to have buyers on the high side.” Slower economic growth in the US and a production spurt from non-OPEC countries should keep prices below the 2006 average of roughly $66 a barrel, analysts say.

A survey of energy analysts showed US crude oil stocks were expected to decline for a fifth straight week in data due Thursday from the US Energy Information Administration. The data, which will cover the week ended December 22, have been delayed until Thursday because of the three-day Christmas holiday.

Crude stocks were expected to show a draw of 1.32 million barrels on average, a Dow Jones Newswires survey said, while both distillate and gasoline stocks were predicted to rise.

Distillate stocks, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, are expected to increase by an average of 220,000 barrels while gasoline inventories were seen rising by an average of 590,000 barrels.

Heating oil futures fell 1.48 cents to $1.6334 a gallon while natural gas prices dropped half a cent to $6.250 a gallon.