NEW YORK — Beyond the crisis in Libya, what’s making energy markets nervous – and driving up oil prices – is concern about Saudi Arabia.
The world’s largest oil exporter is dealing with protests at home, although smaller in scale than those in nearby countries. Larger demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain have oil traders fearing the unrest could spill across the border.
With the entire region in upheaval, it would be a mistake to think the Saudis have shielded themselves from the anger that ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Barclays analyst Helima Croft said. The string of rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East took the world by surprise, forcing a fundamental realignment of the region’s political power.
“You could say, they’re rich, (King) Abdulla’s popular, no problem,” Croft said. But anything is possible. “If anyone had asked us in January whether (Egypt’s) Hosni Mubarak would be gone, most of us would have said ‘absolutely not.’”
More than 17,000 Saudis have signed up on a Facebook page calling for a “Day of Rage” on Friday, according to Barclays Capital. That’s despite King Abdulla’s recent announcement of a $36 billion program for employment, housing and education.
Saudi Arabia has also increased production to make up for a drop in Libyan exports caused by the uprising in the smaller OPEC nation. Doing so, however, will cut into the country’s surplus supply for months. Investment banks said Tuesday the move will put enough pressure on world supplies to keep oil prices at elevated levels this spring.
Oil prices have jumped about $20 per barrel since mid-February when the Libyan uprising escalated.
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Experts agree that a resolution to that crisis won’t necessarily stop oil prices from heading higher.
Analyst and oil trader Stephen Schork said the market is waiting for a sign that the entire region is headed toward a peaceful outcome that will keep crude exports flowing. “That’s months away,” he said.
That’s bad news for drivers in the U.S., where the average price for gasoline has risen about 39 cents per gallon in three weeks, topping $3.50.
Oil futures did decline Tuesday, after OPEC ministers discussed whether to ramp up oil production to make up for Libya’s lost exports.
Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude for April delivery fell 55 cents $1.64 to $104.893.81 per barrel on Tuesday. In London, Brent crude dropped $1.78 to $113.26 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
Libya produced 1.6 million oil barrels per day before fighting forced companies to evacuate workers. Most of that production is been shut down.
Saudi Arabia’s oil minister said the kingdom has about 3.5 million barrels per day of spare capacity that could be brought online.
“Saudi Arabia will continue to reliably meet the world’s petroleum needs,” minister Ali Naimi said.
Boosting production now might cool off overheated energy prices, but experts warn OPEC could weaken its ability to manage global supplies later this year.
Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research, said the main concern in the oil market is whether the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran – OPEC’s No. 2 producer – will be dramatically affected by the wave of pro-reform uprisings.
Raising production now “would have a minor calming effect on the market,” Lynch said. “Other than that, it’s not going to take us back below $100″ per barrel.
In the U.S., gasoline pump prices climbed for the 21st straight day, adding nearly a penny on Tuesday to $3.517 per gallon. A gallon of regular is 39.7 cents more expensive than a month ago and 76.4 cents higher than a year ago.
In other Nymex trading for April contracts, heating oil lost 5.66 cents at $3.0091 per gallon and gasoline futures gave up 5.62 cents at $2.9477 per gallon. Natural gas lost less than a penny to $3.915 per 1,000 cubic feet.