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Dec. 6, 2021, 3:34 p.m. EST

Oil settles at highest in a week, up nearly 5%, as omicron fears ease

By Myra P. Saefong and Mark DeCambre

Crude-oil prices on Monday settled with a gain of nearly 5%, as concerns surrounding the omicron variant of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 eased a bit.

Other factors, including a move by the Saudis to raise crude prices for some buyers, and rising tensions in the Middle East, helped to shift some focus away from the pandemic.

Energy prices have moved up “off chatter that the omicron virus might not present severe health problems,” analysts at Zaner wrote in Monday’s commentary.

Recent reports have offered some cause for optimism about the new strain’s potential impact on the economy. The U.S.’s top medical adviser  Anthony Fauci said  that omicron didn’t appear to produce a “great deal of severity” in cases, aligning with some early research that indicates that infections tend to be milder compared against other variants.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia increased its prices of Arab Light oil over the weekend for January delivery that it sells to Asia and U.S. by up to a two-year high, according to Reuters .

The decision by the Saudis, the de facto head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and one of the biggest oil producers in the world, to hike the cost of the oil to the U.S. and Asia “comes amidst expectations that demand will remain high in the new year,” wrote Ricardo Evangelista, senior analyst at ActivTrades, in a daily research note.

That, together with reports of an impasse in the talks between the U.S. and Iran, is supporting the price of the barrel,” he said.

Against that backdrop, West Texas Intermediate crude for January delivery (NYM:CL00) rose $3.23, or 4.9%, to settle at $69.49 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after the U.S. benchmark produced a weekly loss of 2.8% on Friday. Prices on Monday ended the session at their highest in a week, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

In electronic trading after the settlement, the front-month WTI contract touched highs above $70.

Tensions in the Middle East likely contributed to the rise. Saudi state TV reported that a ballistic missile was launched toward the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh Monday, according to The Jerusalem Post .

“Rising geopolitical risks” added to oil’s move higher, with the news of that the Saudis intercepted the missile, and there have been recent reports that Russia deployed troops along its border with Ukraine, raising the possibility of a military invasion, Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at The Price Futures Group, told MarketWatch.

But all in all, “the market is getting the sense that the worst could be over with the virus and there’s more optimism that the sell off was way overdone,” he said.

February Brent crude , the global benchmark, rose $3.20, or 4.6%, to settle at $73.80 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, the highest finish since Nov. 29. Prices last week lost 2.4%, based on the front-month contract.

Last week, both WTI and Brent notched six straight weekly declines, marking the longest such streak since 2018.

Monday’s action “comes on the back of last week’s decision by the OPEC+ cartel to maintain the increases in production for January, despite uncertainty over demand due to the emergence of the omicron variant,” said Evangelista.

Oil values have seen some stabilization as OPEC and its allies, a group known as OPEC+, last Thursday, displayed some confidence in the prospects for crude uptake, agreeing to rollover a current production policy and raise monthly overall output by 400,000 barrels per day in January, while deciding not to adjourn a key meeting to allow for further shifts in policy if needed.

Read: OPEC+ takes unusual tack by keeping existing production policy, while leaving meeting ‘in session’

“However, today’s gains should not be interpreted as the beginning of a rally in prices, as uncertainty over the impact of the new virus variant on economic activity will cap the scope for further rises,” said Evangelista.

Petroleum product prices on Nymex finished higher, with January gasoline adding 4.6% to $2.043 a gallon and January heating oil up 3.5% to $2.171 a gallon.

Natural-gas futures, however, remain “extremely volatile and weather driven,” said Colin Cieszynski​, chief market strategist at SIA Wealth Management.

On Monday, January natural gas lost 11.5% to $3.657 per million British thermal units, after prices for the heating fuel on Friday posted a weekly loss of almost 25%.

“The main driver for these massive losses has been mild weather outlooks for December, with NOAA’s forecasts showing a high probability of warmer-than-normal temperatures across the entire U.S. except the West Coast through December 19,” said Christin Redmond, commodity analyst at Schneider Electric, Monday’s note. NOAA released an updated three- to four-week outlook on Friday, which “shows similar conditions,” she said.

“The result for natural gas markets is likely to be lower heating demand throughout this month, which would leave more gas in storage,” said Redmond.

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