WTI Muscles Up Against Brent

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- For much of Friday -- before the dip of both WTI and Brent -- crude oil contracts were mixed as technical breakthroughs and talk of more glut relief in the Midwest came to favor one over the other.

West Texas Intermediate (WTI) light sweet crude oil for November delivery had bounced 96 cents to $83.55 a barrel as technical momentum got added mileage from growing attention to the fact that refiners are increasingly doing whatever they can to get a hold of the discounted WTI -- even through unconventional methods of transportation -- given that it's a lot cheaper than other oil options right now.

WTI, of course, remains discounted to Brent these days, as much of the WTI oil remains trapped in the Midwest due to a lack of pipeline infrastructure, resulting in a glut of supply.

Also helping WTI prices Friday was talk among traders that Canada may have to start rationing some grades of western Canadian light crude oil, which compete head-to-head with WTI, as pricing drops to the mid-$70 area.

The December Brent crude contract, on the other hand, drifted $1.25 lower to $102.95 as traders unwound WTI-Brent spread trades and frowned on the global benchmark's exposure to the dire situation of the eurozone and potential ramp-up of Libyan oil supply. The contract broke below the $23 WTI-Brent spread level Friday -- the typical discount at which WTI has been trading to Brent.

After breaking short-term support levels the day before, there has been a "big-time follow-through," TAC Energy trader Mark Anderle said of WTI. WTI is on a "technical tear," he said earlier today. In addition, "the physical market is healing a glut," he added.

As for Brent's break below the $23 differential with WTI, Anderle said, "there's so much money in that spread trade that when it starts to correct, it moves quickly ... quick unwinding."

Recently, there's been a significant increase in the number of unconventional vehicles -- rail, barges and trucks -- with trucks often grouped under the same category as barges -- being sent to the Midwest to deliver the trapped WTI crude oil to the Gulf Goast.

"If you are a U.S. oil refiner and you can get your hands on rails, trucks and barges ... your cost of crude is so much cheaper than competitors who have to use the oil priced off European Brent," said Oil Price Information Service editor Beth Heinsohn.

The Department of Energy's latest monthly data on crude oil movements shows that July crude oil movement by barge and tanker -- the EIA lumps these two together -- was at 1.527 million barrels, or a daily average of 49,260 barrels; exceeding the record 1.475 million barrels set in April and coming in nearly six times higher than the next-highest volume seen for July in previous years, said Heinsohn.

So far, of these three unconventional methods of transportation, rail freight traffic has seen the most significant growth, according to a JPMorgan report.

Some traders and market strategists are already positioning themselves based on the long-term hypothesis of a return to the historical WTI premium over Brent, or a Brent decline against WTI.

"I'm a buyer of WTI vs. Brent," says MF Global senior markets strategist Richard Ilczyszyn. "I was a Brent guy when it made sense -- back when the turmoil in the Middle East unfolded ... if Libya comes back online, what are you staying in Brent for?"

He cited the slowdown and debt crisis in Europe, as, of course, another big strike against Brent.

Towards the latter half of the trading session Friday, WTI also took a dip into the red, down 31 cents, as oil prices followed stocks lower. The stock market was responding badly to the downgrades of Spain and Italy's debt by Fitch Ratings and Atlanta Federal Reserve president Dennis Lockhart's cautious remarks about the U.S. banking system.

Apache ( APA) was falling 1.9% to $84.60; Anadarko ( APC) was tumbling 2.1% to $65.11; Chesapeake Energy ( CHK) was losing 2% to $25.39; EOG Resources ( EOG) was surrendering 3.9% to $75.47; Baker Hughes ( BHI) was slumping 1.6% to $48.74; Triangle Petroleum ( TPLM) was tumbling 2.4% to $3.66; and Ensco ( ESV) was losing 2% to $40.92.

Ilczyszyn of MFGlobal says these days, on a day-to-day basis, oil traders are often using the S&P 500 as a "barometer" for where oil prices might be going next. For instance, an S&P 500 bottom of 1070 corresponds with WTI crude at around $75 and Brent at around $99.

-- Written by Andrea Tse in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Andrea Tse.

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