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US oil prices hold firm; fuel markets expected to tighten

However, release of crude from US strategic reserves might offset supply cut resulting from Iran sanctions

Singapore

OIL prices held firm on Tuesday, with US fuel markets seen to be tightening, although the release of crude from the American strategic reserve somewhat offset an expected supply cut due to upcoming sanctions against Iran.

Front-month US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were up 30 US cents, or 0.45 per cent, at around 3pm Singapore time at US$66.73 per barrel. The contract expires on Tuesday.

Traders said US markets were lifted by a tightening outlook for fuel markets in the coming months.

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Inventories in the United States for refined products such as diesel and heating oil for this time of year are at their lowest in four years.

This is occurring just ahead of the peak demand period for these fuels, with diesel needed for tractors to harvest crops and the arrival of colder weather during the northern hemisphere autumn raising consumption of heating oil.

Outside the United States, markets focused on US sanctions against Iran, which from November will target its oil sector.

International Brent crude oil futures were down nine cents, at US$72.12 a barrel.

Washington on Monday offered 11 million barrels of high-sulphur crude from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for delivery from Oct 1 to Nov 30. The released oil could offset expected supply shortfalls from US sanctions against Iran.

Because of the sanctions, French bank BNP Paribas said it expected oil production from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), of which Iran is a member, to fall from this year's average of 32.1 million barrels per day (bpd) to 31.7 million bpd next year.

Still, traders said overall market sentiment was cautious because of concerns over the demand outlook amid the trade dispute between the United States and China.

A Chinese trade delegation is due in Washington this week to resolve the dispute, but US President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview on Monday he does not expect much progress, and that resolving the trade dispute with China will "take time".

The impact of the Iran sanctions is not yet clear.

While most of Europe's energy firms will likely fall in line with Washington, China has indicated that it will continue to buy Iranian oil.

The Iran supply cut may also be more than compensated for by production increases outside Opec.

BNP Paribas said non-Opec output would likely grow by two million bpd this year and by 1.9 million bpd next year.

"Depending on when pipeline infrastructure constraints are lifted in the US, non-Opec supply growth by the end of 2019 may prove higher than currently assumed," the bank said.

The search for new oil has increased globally in the last two years, with the worldwide rig count having risen from 1,013 at the end of July 2016 to 1,664 this month, said energy-services firm Baker Hughes.

The biggest increase was in north America, where the rig count shot up from 491 to 1,057 in the last two years.

How prices develop will also depend on demand.

"We see global oil demand growing by 1.4 million barrels per day in both 2018 and 2019," BNP Paribas said, implying that global markets are likely to remain sufficiently supplied. REUTERS