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Brent-WTI gap to widen as Libya risks persist

Source: Arb.ca.gov

Benchmark oil prices will likely continue easing this week in the U.S. reflecting ample supplies but competing Brent crude may gain, boosted by continued supply risks from Libya, CNBC's latest market survey of traders, analysts and strategists showed.

Meanwhile, although crude stockpiles build in the U.S. and the world's largest oil consumer moves closer towards self-sufficiency some are questioning the longer-term supply outlook despite the shale boom.

U.S. crude oil output in October exceeded imports for the first time in nearly two decades, starting a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the country benefits from one of the biggest oil booms in history, Reuters reported last week.

(Read more: Crude ends down as supply jitters, Fed worries stifle rally)

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) said on Nov. 13 oil production in October was 7.7 million barrels per day, the highest for that month in 25 years, which surpassed net imports of 7.6 million bpd.

"Expectations are for the U.S. to reach or surpass the 10 million barrel-a-day mark by the turn of this decade," said Esa Ramasamy, Platts Editorial Director, Americas. Though it would represent "a major milestone" if it happens, 10 million barrels a day "is not a viable target under current infrastructure constraints and export limitations," Ramasamy said.

"There is a lobby group surfacing to push Congress to lift crude oil export restrictions – or at least to ease parts of the regulations," he added. Freeing up more U.S. crude for export markets may help narrow the price gap between Brent crude – the competing benchmark – and U.S. prices.

Sentiment over near-term direction for oil prices is split, CNBC's latest oil poll shows, reflecting a contrasting picture on the supply outlook for the U.S. and producers elsewhere. Exactly 50 percent (10 out of 20 respondents) believe prices will fall this week while 45 percent (9 out of 20) say prices will gain.

At the heart of the matter is the favorable supply picture in the U.S. which stands in sharp contrast with supply disruptions in OPEC members Libya, Iraq and Nigeria underlined by the widening price gap between Brent and U.S. crude futures.

"The assumption that exports from both Libya and Iran will rise by a combined 1.7 million barrels per day from current levels…looks decidedly more heroic now than it did last month," said Credit Suisse oil strategists Jan Stuart and Johannes Van Der Tuin wrote in a November 18 report.

(Read more: Why a nuclear deal would mean oil price falls)

'The Libya Problem'

Carl Larry, president of Houston-based consultancy Oil Outlooks and Opinions, correctly forecast earlier this month a move in Brent's premium to its U.S. counterpart towards his target of $16 a barrel. There is a "strong chance" that the Brent premium "tests $20 soon," Larry said.

Brent's premium to U.S. crude last Thursday hit an eight-month high of $15.87 a barrel during intraday activity as the U.S. contract dipped to $92.51 a barrel, the lowest level since early June.

"Both WTI (West Texas Intermediate, the contract defining U.S. crude futures) and Brent are driven by different fundamentals now," said a Bangalore, India based proprietary oil trader.

"European refiners are back after maintenance season, the Libya problem does not seem to go away and Iran talks haven't provided any result," he added. "Brent is a definite 'buy' on dips market. Though Brent is currently overbought, $110-111 cannot be ruled out in the next 2 weeks."

(Read more: Iran nuclear talks: The oil price fallout)

The deteriorating security situation in Libya continues to shore up the Brent crude price, laying the conditions for a wider spread.

"Violence and widespread insecurity will almost certainly remain a feature of Libyan politics and society for the next few years, and at least until a new constitution and a new, legitimate government is in place," said Riccardo Fabiani and Niamh McBurney, analysts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group in a report released on Monday.

Bearish commentators, however, say diplomatic progress between Iran and the west aimed at de-escalating Tehran's nuclear program means sanctions may be partially lifted possibly next year, paving the way for a return of Iranian crude onto world markets. Major powers and Iran are scheduled to meet in Geneva on Nov. 20-22.

Plus, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data last week showing the eighth straight week of U.S. stockpiles builds and the fifth increase at the Cushing, Oklahoma, delivery point for the U.S. futures contract, represented another negative theme.

"It looks like an interim agreement with Iran is extremely likely this week which coupled with the bearish DOE data last week will further press the large long speculator position," said Kirk Howell, portfolio manager at Allston Holdings.

"We've had some consolidation around $94 and I think it's likely we'll see another leg lower to test $91.80 unless we see significant news out of Libya or a sharp change in weekly DOE data," Howell said.

(Read more: Oil market rollercoaster ride not over: IEA)

UBS strategist Giovanni Staunovo said increases among producers outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will offset "unplanned production outages" in the coming months.

"We estimate non-OPEC production to grow by 1.4 to 1.6 million barrels a day next year while demand should expand by 1.1 to 1.2 million barrels," Staunovo said. "This supply and demand backdrop makes the crude oil market less vulnerable to unplanned supply disruptions, which are currently close historically elevated levels (2.9 million barrels a day) and would have to increase further to maintain or push the price of crude higher. Since we see a low probability of that occurring, we expect Brent crude oil prices to trend lower."

By CNBC's Sri Jegarajah. Follow him on Twitter @cnbcSri

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