US crude rises 30 cents, settling at $66.52, as potential supply disruptions support oil market

Key Points
  • Oil prices were choppy on Tuesday as traders weighed the impact of geopolitical tensions against the physical market's fundamentals.
  • Some traders said risks included potentially spreading conflict in the Middle East and renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran.
  • Others say concerns that a renewal of U.S. sanctions on Iran will rock oil markets are overdone.
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Oil prices finished Tuesday's session higher after seesawing in choppy trade, as investors weighed the potential for disruptions to crude supply, especially in the Middle East.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures ended Tuedsay's session up 30 cents at $66.52 a barrel. Brent crude oil futures were down 16 cents at $71.58 per barrel by 2:29 p.m. ET.

Crude futures tumbled nearly 2 percent in the previous session on easing fears that Friday's U.S.-led air strike on Syria would escalate conflict between Western powers and Syrian government allies Russia and Iran.

"We're starting to see a little of the premium come off from geopolitics, and the focus is shifting to inventories," said Bill Baruch, president of Blue Line Futures in Chicago.

Brent has risen 1.4 percent so far this month. It hit a peak last week of $73.09, the highest since late 2014, amid mounting tensions in the Middle East, the possibility of renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran and falling output in Venezuela, where economic crisis has dragged down oil output to multi-year lows.

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"The rally upwards was purely on geopolitical risk and if now we haven't had any further stimulus, we're seeing prices slip off a bit," Natixis commodities strategist Joel Hancock said.

Analysts expected uncertainty over U.S. policy towards Iran to continue to support prices through May 12, the deadline that U.S. President Donald Trump gave to Congress and European allies to "fix" the Iran nuclear deal.

If Washington does not renew sanctions relief for Tehran at this point, Iran may have difficulty exporting its crude.

However, some analysts believe those concerns are overdone. Barclays forecasts that while oil prices are likely to remain elevated this quarter, Brent is likely heading for a correction in the second half of 2018.

Chinese data released overnight also showed the nation processed a record amount of crude oil in March. But the figures amount to a "false flag" because China is a net exporter of refined fuels, meaning more diesel and gasoline will likely hit the market, explained John Kilduff, founding partner at Again Capital.

"I think we're probably processing that Chinese data as much as anything else today," he told CNBC.

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Healthy demand and coordinated crude supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and several partners including Russia have made oil one of the top-performing commodities of 2018, with a gain of 7 percent, after wheat and corn, which have gained nearly 10 percent.

Bullish enthusiasm over the outlook for oil prices, however, might be contained by an increase in supplies in Cushing, Oklahoma, the delivery point for U.S. crude futures.

"We've seen that front May-June spread in WTI swing back into contango today. And that's somewhat of a implies a continued up trend in Cushing crude supply," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Illinois.

"There's not much volatility today, as we wait for API and EIA data," Ritterbusch said.

The American Petroleum Institute publishes weekly U.S. fuel inventory data later on Tuesday, while official government data, including on production, is due from the EIA on Wednesday.

Another main market driver has been the United States, where crude production has soared by almost a quarter since mid-2016, largely thanks to a booming shale industry. U.S. shale oil production is expected to increase in May for the fourth consecutive month, U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data showed on Monday.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.