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Fri 24 Feb 2012 10:18 AM

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Brent oil rises above $124 amid Iran supply worries

Oil price on track for a fifth straight week as Iran, US economy offset investor concerns

Brent oil rises above $124 amid Iran supply worries

Brent crude rose above $124 on Friday, on track for a fifth straight weekly gain, as worries over Iranian supply and upbeat US economic data offset concerns that high oil prices could snuff out demand growth.

Brent crude rose 38 cents to $124.00 by 9.50am UAE time, after touching a high of $124.28 earlier in the session. Brent, which has gained more than 11 percent so far this month, settled on Thursday at $123.62 a barrel - the highest front-month settlement since May 2 last year.

US crude futures rose for a seventh day, its longest winning streak since a 10-day gain in December 2009. The April contract was up 73 cents at $108.56 a barrel.

"There's still a risk premium to be built in oil prices because of Iran," said Jonathan Barratt, chief executive of BarrattBulletin, a Sydney-based commodity research firm.

Tensions between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme rose after a UN nuclear watchdog mission ended in failure this week. Faced with western sanctions, European and Asian buyers of Iranian crude have or planned to cut imports from Tehran.

Japan, the world's third-largest oil importer, may cut Iranian crude imports by a more-than-expected 20 percent as it seeks a waiver from US sanctions, a move which would spare its banks from a major blow but also boost its rising fuel import bill.

Yet, the stalemate over Iran's nuclear programme is working in favour of the Islamic Republic as higher oil prices are compensating Iran for its market share losses, Barratt said.

Iran said it has maintained oil production levels despite sanctions, but oil experts said they suspected Tehran was storing crude at sea while looking for new customers to evade Western measures.

Consumption for refined oil products in the United States - the world's top oil consumer - plunged to the lowest level in nearly 15 years, data from the Energy Information Administration showed.

President Barack Obama hit back at election-year Republican criticism of his energy policies, offering a staunch defense of his attempts to wean Americans off foreign oil and saying there is no "silver bullet" for high gasoline prices.

Rising oil prices have also been adding to concerns over demand. Brent valued in euros surged to a record on Thursday, adding fuel costs to the euro zone's debt troubles and denting the region's recovery efforts.

Brent's record price in euros is "going to hurt any chance of recovery" at the euro zone, Barratt said.

The euro zone has yet to break its vicious cycle of debt as its economy is heading into its second recession in just three years and the wider European Union will stagnate, according to a forecast by the European Commission.

Brent's premium to US crude narrowed to $15.44 after closing at $15.79 on Thursday as inventories at Cushing, the delivery point for WTI, fell 315,000 barrels last week. The spread rose to over $20 a barrel earlier in the month on rising inventories in the US Midwest.

In other markets, Asian shares rose and the euro hovered at two-and-a-half month highs on Friday after data underscored a recovery in the battered US labour market and German business sentiment improved.

The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits last week held at the lowest level since the early days of the 2007-2009 recession, while US December home prices rose 0.7 percent.

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