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US crude rises 14 cents, settling at $68.19, on concern over Iran sanctions, Venezuelan output

Key Points
  • Oil prices were choppy after French President Emmanuel Macron said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to restore sanctions on Iran.
  • Falling oil output in Venezuela is further reducing supply at a time of high demand.
  • Soaring U.S. oil production and exports are holding back further price gains.
A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Gulf.
Raheb Homavandi | Reuters

Oil prices rose on Thursday, supported by expectations of renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, declining output in Venezuela and ongoing strong demand.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures ended Thursday's session up 14 cents at $68.19 per barrel. Brent crude oil futures were last up 74 cents, or 1 percent, at $74.74 a barrel by 2:29 p.m. ET.

The oil price has risen by 15 percent in the last four weeks thanks to expectations that the United States will re-impose sanctions against Iran, a major oil producer and member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that he expected U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of a deal with Iran reached in 2015, in which Iran suspended its nuclear program in return for Western powers lifting crippling sanctions.

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US sanctions on Iran would significantly disrupt oil supplies

Trump will decide by May 12 whether to restore U.S. sanctions on Tehran, which would likely result in a reduction of its oil exports.

The sentiment on Thursday marked a shift from earlier in the week, when oil prices fell after Trump said the United States and France could reach an agreement "fairly quickly" on the Iran nuclear deal.

"The price rise is due to growing expectations of new U.S. sanctions ... which would doubtless reduce the oil supply from Iran," Commerzbank said in a note.

"French President Macron appears to have little hope that he would be able to persuade US President Trump to remain in the nuclear agreement ... Since the market is already tight because of the high production outages in Venezuela and the production cuts implemented by OPEC and Russia, any further reduction of supply weighs all the more heavily," the bank said.

Venezuela's crude production has fallen from almost 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in early 2016 to around 1.5 million bpd due to political and economic crisis.

Venezuela's plunging output and looming U.S. sanctions against Iran come against a backdrop of strong demand, especially in Asia, the world's biggest oil consuming region.

However, not all market indicators point towards tighter supplies.

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Peak oil demand at least 10 to 15 years away: Goldman Sachs

U.S. crude oil inventories rose by 2.2 million barrels in the week to April 20, to 429.74 million barrels. U.S. crude production rose by 46,000 bpd on the previous week, to 10.59 bpd.

Soaring U.S. output has made WTI crude around $6 per barrel cheaper than Brent and drawn exports to record highs.

Dutch bank ING said "the wide discount for WTI to Brent saw exports rising 582,000 bpd week-on-week to a record high of 2.33 million bpd."

With U.S. output and exports surging, some analysts warn that the 20-percent climb in Brent prices since February is starting to look overdone.

"The market does look a little toppish," said Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at futures brokerage AxiTrader.