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As Oil Prices Spike, So Does Market Anxiety

Energy. It's like oxygen. There's no business, home or government that can function without it.

That's not a problem in itself. But when the source of that energy hits prohibitive price points, the trickledown becomes a source of economic anxiety.

Such is the case with oil.

Its price has become one of the most widely discussed, debated and feared topics on Wall Street and on Main Street. Cambridge Energy Research Chairman Daniel Yergin said, it's "not about whether there's enough physical resource," though a leading global energy monitor on Thursday said it is worried about that very thing, further upsetting markets.

The International Energy Agency is studying depletion rates at about 400 oil fields in its first-ever study of world oil supply.

The IEA study, whose results will be released in November, was prompted by concern about the volatility of world oil markets and uncertainty about supply levels.

"The prices are very high, and demand did not respond in the last few years as much as one would have expected," IEA Chief Economist Faith Birol said. "The growth in terms of production was not great. We did not see enough investment."

Still, many experts agree demand increases alone have not been sufficient enough to explain this year's run-up in oil prices.

"Yesterday, crude oil's prices action went parabolic. The bar on the bar-chart looks like the long robot arm on the space shuttle. In reviewing the daily bars on the chart going back to 2001, we could not find a similar instance of such an exaggerated move at a new price record," John P. Kilduff, a CNBC contributor and senior vice president of energy at MF Global, wrote in a research note.

So what's going on?

In session after session, NYMEX futures have shot to record levels. Crude has traded above $135 a barrel, and is double the price it was just a year ago. Oil retreated Thursday, however after speeding to new peaks for a third straight day as investors fretted over long-term supply constraints and a big drop in U.S. crude stocks.

Gasoline futures also are up nearly 50 percent in the last year, and the price of gasoline at the pump has jumped to a national average of $3.79 per gallon and is expected to exceed $4 a gallon before long.

"We think this year will be the first year in 15 years, since the first Gulf crisis that gasoline demand will actually decline in the United States," said Yergin, who is also a CNBC contributor. "It's the kind of thing that financial markets are not paying attention to right now. They're just looking for news that comfirms the upward movement."

OPEC Secretary-General Abdullah al-Badri said Thursday the group can do nothing to lower oil prices, and called the oil market "crazy."

The United States has repeatedly called on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to boost its output to try to calm markets, but the group has said no increase is needed.

Just Wednesday, Brazil's state-run oil company struck oil in ultra-deep waters off the Atlantic coast, near the huge Tupi field it discovered last year, the company said.

The discovery lies in a deep-water area near Brazil's Tupi field, which Petrobras in November said could have recoverable reserves of up to 8 billion barrels of oil. But the news went virtually unnoticed in the U.S. as oil climbed higher.

And a recent report from Goldman Sachs predicted that oil could reach $150-$200 over the next 6-24 months on limited supply growth. The report also went on to dissect the general misconception of the role of the "big, bad speculator." Speculators — who have undeniably bid up commodity prices — are not the problem. They may actually be the solution, the report concluded.

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