Crude Jumps 2.6 Percent on Freezing Weather

Oil prices jumped 2.6 percent on Friday as a harsh U.S. cold snap kept heating oil demand sizzling and fresh signs emerged of China's growing energy consumption.

U.S. light crude (search) climbed $1.22 to $48.53 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search) after reaching a high of $48.95 during the open-call session. London Brent crude was up $1.41 at $45.73.

Temperatures in the U.S. Northeast, the world's largest heating oil market, will stay much below normal through the weekend with cold locked in longer than previous expected by heavy snowfall, forecasters said.

Adding to strength, customs data released on Friday showed China's crude imports hit a record 12.1 million tonnes in December, sending total 2004 imports to 122.7 million tonnes, a rise of almost 35 percent from last year.

China is now the world's second largest energy consumer behind the United States.

"We should expect record import volumes from China every month. Demand growth is slowing but is still growing faster than domestic production," said Gordon Kwan, director of oil and gas research at CLSA in Hong Kong.

Crude prices have risen 12 percent since the start of the year, supported in part by worries of further disruptions to Iraqi oil exports ahead of elections Jan. 30 and jitters in advance of an OPEC (search) ministerial meeting on the same day.

Sabotage on Iraq's northern pipeline was expected to keep oil exports through Turkey at a standstill for another two to three weeks, an Iraqi oil official said on Wednesday. Iraq's southern exports of 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) have been mostly spared the attacks.

Any additional disruption to Iraqi exports would add to other global oil disruptions, including outages in Nigeria, Norway's North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and Canada.

Shipments from the OPEC producers' cartel, which controls more than half of global exports, have also fallen in line with the group's pact last month to reduce excess supplies by 1 million bpd from Jan. 1.

OPEC oil to be shipped in the four weeks ending Feb. 5 sank by 650,000 bpd, marking the biggest drop since April, a shipping analyst said on Thursday.

OPEC ministers will meet January 30 to discuss whether to cut supplies further ahead of the second quarter to defend prices when winter demand ebbs. Some analysts doubt a cut will happen, however, with prices well-above $40.

OPEC said on Friday that world stocks are rising but that stronger-than-expected demand growth means that the stockbuilds will be smaller than previously thought.

Tensions between the United States and OPEC's second biggest producer Iran have also bolstered prices.

Vice President Dick Cheney said on Thursday that Iran was at the top of the administration's list of world trouble spots and expressed concern that Israel "might well decide to act first" to eliminate any nuclear threat from Tehran.