Updated from 2:56 p.m. EDT
Oil prices leaped above $55 a barrel Friday for the first time in two weeks, as speculators rushed in to the benchmark June contract after a key technical level was crossed.
June crude closed up $1.19 to $55.39 a barrel in Nymex floor trading. Gasoline futures jumped about 3 cents to $1.648 a gallon, after rallying about 4 cents late Thursday.
Despite daily vows from OPEC and its members to step up output and exploration, oil prices have stubbornly held above $50, about 35% higher at this time last year.
"The $55.25 technical resistance point has been passed by good fund buying," said John Kidluff, energy analysts at Fimat USA. "We are seeing the non-commercials pilling pack up."
A refinery stoppage at
and a gunfire incident last night at Mecca, Saudi Arabia, put more of a risk premium on oil prices now, Kidluff says. "The chart looks very bullish."
Prices have recently resisted steady growth in U.S. oil and gasoline inventories, which are at their highest levels in three years. The market remains remarkably sensitive to glitches at refiners, or a slight fall in inventories, both of which happened this week.
What seems to be guiding traders and analysts is concern that economic growth in the U.S. has not been met by equal growth in refining capacity.
While there have been plant expansions, no new refineries have been built in the U.S. in over 25 years.
"The major reasons for no new refineries are issues of high labor and operating costs in the U.S., costly litigations that are very daunting on companies and of course the environmental bureaucratic system they have to face," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesperson for the American Automobile Association, which issues weekly and monthly gasoline commentaries.
The strain on the existing refineries is immense. Sundstrom explains that the main refining bottleneck actually comes from fuel blends rather than just the production of gasoline. According to Sundstrom, different states allow different types of fuel blends to be used within their territories, based on provisions of the Clean Air Act. The problem is that once a refinery blends a certain gasoline type for delivery to a certain region, it can't use the same stuff for other places.
"Fuel blending" weighs heavily on refineries and limits their production capacities, Sundstrom says.
Currently, any growth in refining actually comes from imports. Ten percent of U.S. gasoline supply comes form imports today, with Venezuela being one of the biggest gasoline suppliers. "There are all the reasons for the dependency on foreign fuel to increase going forward," Sundstrom said.
Also worrisome is the rising dependence on foreign oil. In 2005, data show that the U.S. is importing 62.9% of its oil, an 8% climb from 2000's 58.2%.
To address that, the House recently passed an energy bill that gives $8.1 billion in tax incentives to local producers of oil, gas and coal. The bill also approves the drilling for gas and oil in Alaska, a prospect heavily opposed by Democrats and environmental groups.
In an attempt to ease importing concerns, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said the country plans to invest heavily in more production and aims to boost its output to 12.5 million barrels a day by 2009, the
Wall Street Journal
reported. Saudi Arabia's supply capacity is currently 11 million barrels a day.
In company news,
( RD) said earnings for the first quarter were $43.4 million, or 40 cents a share, on revenues of $231.8 million, compared to a loss of $11.3 million, or 11 cents per share, on revenues of $149.4 million, in the same period a year ago. Excluding some gains on asset sales, the company's net income for the quarter was 24 cents a share. That slightly exceeds analysts' estimates of 22 cents a share, according to Thomson Financial. Still, the shares were recently down 31 cents, or 1.07%, to $28.72.
Hornbeck Offshore Services
, a provider of offshore supply vessels, restated its first quarter earnings guidance from a range of 17 to 21 cents a share increase, to a range of 27 to 30 cents a share. The company will report earnings on May 5. Analysts on average estimated earnings of 20 cents a share. Shares jumped $1.12, or 4.89%, to $24.02.
To release some steam from its raging stock price, analyst Jacques Rousseau at Friedman Ramsey Billing cut
( FTO) rating to market perform from outperform, based on valuation. The company's stock price increased 65% since its rating was raised in January, Rousseau said. "The stock ran up too high, we did this so investors would take a little profit now," he said. Share prices indeed decline, at least for today, by $1.81, or 4.11%, to $42.18.
Shares of most major oil producers were up. Exxon Mobil rose 37 cents, or 0.62%, to $59.65;
increased 69 cents, or 1.29%, to $54.09;
jumped 50 cents, or 0.84%, to $60.04;
climbed $1.95, or 1.85%, to $107.64; and
rose 47 cents, or 0.77%, to $61.22.