Oil prices surge 6 percent as Libya protests mount

NEW YORK (AP) — Oil prices soared to the highest level in more than two years as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi urged his supporters to attack protesters who are violently challenging his 42-year rule.

Only a small part of Libya’s oil production appeared to be affected, though analysts fear that similar revolts will spread to OPEC heavyweights like Iran.

Benchmark West Texas Intermediate for April delivery jumped $5.71, or 6.4 percent, to settle at $95.42 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil hasn’t been that high since it settled at $97.92 on Oct. 1, 2008.

Retail gasoline prices in the U.S. held steady overnight at a national average of $3.171 per gallon.

Libya holds the most oil reserves in Africa and is the world’s 15th-largest crude exporter at 1.2 million barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Administration. As the Libyan government cracked down on protesters, Western oil companies including Eni and Repsol-YPF temporarily suspended oil production in the country. BP has started evacuating workers.

Any production losses in Libya could be quickly absorbed by other countries like Saudi Arabia. The official Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali Naimi as saying that Saudi’s production capacity of 12.5 million barrels per day can help “compensate for any shortage in international supplies.” Saudi Arabia currently produces around 8 million barrels per day.

The main concern stalking markets is that revolts in the Middle East and North Africa will spread to other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, particularly Iran, the group’s second-largest producer.

Energy consultant Jim Ritterbusch said a “fear premium” has added about $10 per barrel to the price of oil. That means prices could tumble once the region settles down. “But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, he said.”

Looking ahead, there are also knock-on effects from high oil prices. A jump in energy costs could hurt consumer spending and stymie a fragile recovery in developed countries.

In the U.S., a run-up in fuel costs could force businesses and consumers to spend less on other things, slowing both the economy and the pace of hiring.

The U.S. economy picked up momentum at the end of 2010 and is probably growing at about a 3.2 percent annual rate or more in the first three months of the year. A $10 increase in the price of oil shaves off roughly 0.4 percentage point from economic growth, according to economist Brian Bethune at IHS Global Insight. The economy could be pushed into a recession if oil prices were to skyrocket to $150 or $160 a barrel, Bethune and other economists say.

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