Brent crude oil was steady near $108 a barrel yesterday as Iran's threats to halt flows through a vital oil channel offset a surprise jump in US oil stockpiles, leaving oil on track to post a 14 per cent annual gain.
The benchmark is poised to close the year at a record-high average of around $111 a barrel, surpassing the previous annual peak of just below $100 reached in 2008. With the exception of 2008, oil prices have closed higher every year for the last decade.
Brent fell by 11 cents to $107.90 a barrel by 1037 GMT in the final trading day of 2011, although analysts said losses were curbed by simmering tensions between Iran and the US over a threatened closure of a key oil channel.
US crude was up 25 cents at $99.90 a barrel by the same time.
"Iran has helped to underpin oil when other commodity prices have come off," said Andrey Kryuchenkov, analyst at VTB Capital.
"Geopolitical jitters and supply side uncertainty are likely to increase volatility while tensions in the Middle East could still add to the risk premium."
A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said on Thursday the US was not in a position to tell Tehran "what to do in the Strait of Hormuz", state television reported, ratcheting up tensions over a possible halt of oil flows.
Iran's repeated threats last week to halt oil flow through the Strait of Hormuz has helped keep intact a risk premium on prices that first emerged this year with the Libyan uprising, boosting Brent prices to record levels above US crude in October.
"The Middle East premium from Libya has not yet completely eroded as a result of what is happening in Iran," said Jonathan Barratt, chief executive of Barrattsbulletin.com and ex-managing director of Commodity Broking Services.
The tensions helped overshadow signs of comfortable stockpiles in the world's top oil consumer in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere winter. US crude oil inventories and distillate stocks both climbed unexpectedly last week, according to weekly inventory data from the US Energy Information Administration released on Thursday.
Oil to fall next year on weak demand
Analysts polled by Reuters expect slightly lower oil prices of $105 a barrel in 2012 as forecasters like the West's oil watchdog the International Energy Administration expect global demand to decelerate in 2012 due partly to the impact of the Eurozone debt crisis. Another factor to watch will be the pace of economic recovery in the United States.