Crude Futures Approach $67

Natural gas loses 26 cents to $7.83 per million British thermal units.
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Crude futures climbed sharply Thursday as reports emerged that a cyclone is having a detrimental effect on oil shipments moving through the Persian Gulf.

The July crude contract gained 97 cents to $66.93 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Reformulated gasoline, meanwhile, was unchanged at $2.19 a gallon, and heating oil rose 2 cents to $1.99 a gallon.

The July natural gas contract lost 26 cents to finish at $7.83 per million British thermal units after the Energy Information Administration reported an inventory injection that was in line with analysts' estimates.

Corporate intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting is reporting that Cyclone Gonu halted the loading of crude onto oil tankers in Omani ports for three days, suggesting that the storm had a larger effect on Middle East exports than was initially anticipated by analysts, thus lifting crude prices.

Also unnerving energy traders was Wednesday's surprise revelation that refinery utilization fell from 91.1% to 89.6% during the week ended June 7. This is 5.1% less than the five-year average utilization rate in the U.S. Many traders see the lower utilization figures as a sign that U.S. refineries are aging and are more prone to mechanical breakdowns.

However, Kyle Cooper, director of research at IAF Advisors, says that recent refinery utilization figures are misleading. First off, the refinery industry is acting more diligently to report all events to the Environmental Protection Agency than it has in the past, thus lowering utilization figures even though the number of malfunctions at U.S. refineries is likely the same as before.

Secondly, Cooper says that in the wake of the

BP

(BP) - Get Report

Texas City refinery fire in 2005, in which 15 workers were killed, refinery managers are now more likely to adhere to safety and maintenance guidelines because new rules subject them to criminal indictments and prison time.

Meanwhile, energy stocks were broadly lower. The

CBOE Oil Index

dropped 0.9% to 737.

ConocoPhillips

(COP) - Get Report

fell 1% to $77.63 and

Chevron

(CVX) - Get Report

lost 1.2% at $80.80.

Exxon Mobil's

(XOM) - Get Report

shares slid 1.3% to $82.51.

Elsewhere, A.G. Edwards downgraded shares of

Hugoton Royalty Trust

(HGT)

to hold from buy, and the stock sank 3.8% to $26.57.