Brent crude is heading for an annual average of $108.66 in 2013, the
third-highest ever, supported by outages in Africa, the Middle East
and the North Sea. Last year's average of $111.68 is the record,
followed by $110.91 in 2011.
At 1425 GMT, Brent crude was down 18 cents at $111.72 a barrel after
touching an intraday high of $112.12, the highest since Dec. 5. U.S.
crude was up 18 cents at $99.40. Both markets were shut for
Christmas on Wednesday.
"Today should be another slow trading day," said Olivier Jakob, an
analyst at Petromatrix in Switzerland. "We will mainly focus on the
continuation or not of the French refinery strikes."
Workers extended a strike at two French refineries, while lifting
action at a third plant, the CGT union said. The action, in addition
to poor refinery margins, has weighed on European crude demand, say
U.S. crude drew support from jobs data showing the number of
Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week
to the lowest level in nearly a month, a hopeful sign for the labour
market in the world's top oil consumer.
Supply outages in Africa are also in focus. The government in South
Sudan, which is threatened by civil war, has shut 45,000 barrels per
day (bpd) of production, and export terminals remain closed in
Libya, where output is around a tenth of the 1 million bpd it pumped
"The North African uncertainty is supporting Brent," said Masaki
Suematsu, manager of the energy team at brokerage Newedge Japan.
"Most of the news is bullish and the market volume is very thin so
prices tend to move higher."
Tribal leaders will hold more talks on reopening ports in eastern
Libya but the government will not negotiate with protesters blocking
them, the prime minister said.
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In South Sudan, production has dropped to 200,000 bpd after fighting
shut down fields in Unity state, the oil minister said, although
output in Upper Nile state, where most of South Sudan's oil is
extracted, remained unaffected.
While outages have supported prices this year, higher production and
subdued demand growth could depress Brent to an average of $103.50
in 2014, according to analysts in a Reuters survey.
In other supply developments, U.S. crude stocks unexpectedly rose by
716,000 barrels last week as refineries boosted output, a report
from industry group the American Petroleum Institute said on
Traders will be looking to the U.S. government's Energy Information
Administration report to confirm the trend. The data is due on Dec.
27 at 11:00 a.m. EST (1600 GMT), delayed from its usual Wednesday
release by the Christmas holiday.
(Reporting by Florence Tan and Alex
Lawler; editing by John Stonestreet and David Evans)
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