Strategic oil release talk mounts on Syria view
There is growing speculation in global oil markets about the possible release of strategic stockpiles held by major industrialized consumers if military action against Syria triggers a surge in benchmark prices that threatens economic growth, strategists and traders told CNBC.
There will probably be a "short-lived spike in and around any U.S. military action, the timing of which is of course uncertain," said Robin Mills, Head of Consulting at Manaar Energy Consulting & Project Management in Dubai. Still, it's "worth watching any moves to ready an SPR/IEA stock release if Libyan disruptions continue, amid Syrian contingency plans," added Mills, referring to the possible release of emergency oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) coordinated by the International Energy Administration (IEA).
(Read more: Why oil prices may remain strong, war or no war)
While forecasters appear divided over how severely regional oil production will be effected if Syria is targeted – and much does depend on Iran's response and whether infrastructure in Iraq is hit if retaliation does occur – many believe policy planners in the U.S., Europe and oil-hungry Asia are making preparations for the worst-case scenario.
More than half of the respondents in CNBC's latest poll of oil market sentiment (a little over 59 percent, or 16 out of 27) believe prices will gain this week. Less than a third (8 out of 27) say the Syria premium is already priced in and gains will evaporate when it becomes clear that the immediate impact will be contained in the broader Middle East, which pumps a third of the world's oil. Three respondents, or about 11 percent, expect the market to trade around current levels, CNBC's poll showed.
The threat of U.S.-led military strikes against Syria to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for an alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack will dominate oil market sentiment this week. President Barack Obama is expected to address the nation on Tuesday evening from the Oval Office, laying out the case for action against Syria. President Obama will also seek Congressional approval for what may be airstrikes aimed at degrading Assad's chemical weapons capability.
Data from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission last week showed a 3.6 percent decline in the net long position – or bets that prices will rise – in U.S. crude futures held by money managers and non-commercial traders.
Still, at 305,971 contracts such a "massive speculator long position" looks over-extended and vulnerable to "a violent move lower" even if the U.S. strikes Syria, said Kirk Howell, portfolio manager at Allston Holdings, LLC. Potential catalysts leading to a softening of prices may be a "resumption of significant exports from Libya, increasing production in Iraq, or less likely but possible now a coordinated SPR release," Howell said.
(Read more: Syria continues to be your reason to buy oil)
A jump in the price of benchmark Brent crude oil towards $125 or $130 a barrel, or a move to $4.00 a gallon for U.S. retail gasoline may trigger a release from strategic petroleum reserves by major industrialized economies to ensure higher energy costs don't undermine the economic recovery.
For the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, a move towards $130 Brent may endanger demand for their oil, and the producer group may bring more volumes onto the global market with de facto OPEC leader Saudi Arabia expected to provide the lion's share by drawing on its spare capacity, which is estimated at as high as 2.5 million barrels a day.
"The Saudis will not act with oil at $110 or even $120 dollars a barrel. Indeed, the Saudis are happy with oil at $110-$120 a barrel," Sadek Boussena, special energy advisor to Societe Generale and a former OPEC President said in a commentary released by the French bank on Friday. "But if prices rise above, say, $130 dollars a barrel, the Saudis in particular may think this is too high [which] could choke off global growth and hence oil demand."
U.S. crude oil futures settled at their highest level in more than two years on Friday as investors rushed to buy amid concerns a possible military strike against Syria could cause oil prices to spike, Reuters reported.
U.S. crude oil for October delivery settled up 2 percent, or $2.16 per barrel, at $110.53. The last time crude oil futures settled above that level was on May 3, 2011, at $111.05. Brent crude oil futures for October delivery settled up 86 cents per barrel to $116.12 on Friday.