NEW YORK – Oil prices tumbled below $130 a barrel for the first time in more than a month Thursday, as crude's dramatic slide entered a third day accompanied by a sharp sell-off in natural gas.
The declines accelerated amid growing concerns that the weakening economy and creeping inflation are eroding demand for fossil fuels in the U.S. and other large energy-consuming nations.
Oil is now more than 10 percent cheaper per barrel than it was on Monday; natural gas prices are down more than 20 percent just since the Fourth of July. Still, experts are not convinced that prices have turned a corner.
"There's no bell that tells you when the market has turned," said James Cordier, president of Tampa, Fla.-based trading firms Liberty Trading Group and OptionSellers.com.
Light, sweet crude for August delivery dropped $5.31 to settle at $129.29 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices have fallen nearly $16 in just the past three days.
Natural gas futures for August delivery fell more than 8 percent Thursday, marking their biggest one-day drop in nearly a year, according to Nathan Golz, researcher at Wachovia Securities in St. Louis. Prices for the key heating, cooking and power generation fuel settled 86.1 cents lower at $10.537, their lowest point since April.
A number of market observers say there simply wasn't enough support for the recent run up in natural gas prices, and that this week's sell-off of oil has only helped speed the declines.
"Any time oil goes up or down on Nymex, it's going to have a carry-over effect on natural gas," said Michael Rieke, senior managing editor for power and gas at energy research firm Platts.
The immediate cause of Thursday's sharp natural gas decline was a larger-than-expected increase of U.S. supplies.
The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report that natural gas inventories rose by 104 billion cubic feet to more than 2.31 trillion last week. Analysts had been expecting supplies to grow by only 86 billion to 91 billion cubic feet, according to a Platts survey.
A similar report Wednesday showed oil, gasoline and other fuel supplies unexpectedly rose sharply. Traders saw both the petroleum and natural gas reports as reasons to sell, as they reinforce data that show consumers are cutting back on their energy use.
"We're seeing some worries about demand destruction in oil, so I think that's creating some fear among investors and leading them to sell," said Tom Pawlicki, commodities analyst with MF Global Research in Chicago.
Some market observers have said last Friday's record above $147 a barrel could represent a peak price for oil, at least for the time being. But like a number of others, Pawlicki was reluctant to say whether the market's latest swoon represented a lasting shift.
"I think it's too early to call a top to this market," Pawlicki said.
Crude's drop weighed heavily on other commodities Thursday, with gold, silver, soybeans, corn and other agriculture futures all ending sharply lower.
Stocks rallied for the second day. That fueled speculation among some analysts that large investors are pulling money out of oil and other commodities — which had been seen as safe havens given the financial turmoil of the past year — and pumping it back into the beaten-down stock market.
Reports of a pre-dawn explosion that damaged an oil pipeline in Nigeria's restive south — the sort of threat to supply that has helped fuel crude's recent rally — did little to prop up prices Thursday.
A Nigerian military official said the blast on a pipeline owned by Agip, a subsidiary of the Italian energy giant Eni SpA, "affected output," although he did not say by how much.
Col. Chris Musa, head of the Bayelsa State military, also did not say how severe the damage was, and declined to comment on what might have caused the explosion. The company said a sudden drop in pressure led it to halt production on pipelines carrying 47,000 barrels of oil a day.
Attacks on oil industry infrastructure in the past two years have slashed oil output by almost a quarter in Nigeria, Africa's top crude producer.
At the gas pump, prices held steady at a record $4.114 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. Diesel rose to a new record of $4.845, up more than half a penny.
In other Nymex trade, heating oil fell 9.72 cents to settle at $3.7438 a gallon, while gasoline futures fell 11.61 cents to settle at $3.1633.
Brent crude for September delivery fell $5.12 to settle at $131.07 on the ICE Futures Exchange in London.