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Oil flows, but high prices jangle nerves

world Updated: Feb 20, 2011 23:27 IST
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The turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East has helped drive oil prices up to more than $102 a barrel for an important benchmark crude, Brent, although so far there have been no significant disruptions in production or supply, according to experts at the International Energy Agency here.

While Egypt and Tunisia have little oil, Libya is one of Africa's largest holders of crude oil reserves, Algeria and Iran are major suppliers and Bahrain and Yemen both border Saudi Arabia on the peninsula that produces much of the world's oil. Together, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran represent about 10% of global oil production.

Oil markets are famously skittish, especially when there is even the possibility of disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa, which account for some 35 percent of the world's oil production and a greater percentage of the world's known reserves.

That nervousness is likely to spread elsewhere, with so many economies still fragile in the wake of the worldwide economic downturn and with the possibility that higher crude prices could lead to further increases in food prices. The high cost of food has already led to unrest in several countries, even before political revolts began in the Middle East.

The increased price of energy is a burden that can be a detriment to the global economic recovery, said Nobuo Tanaka, the executive director of the International Energy Agency. Brent is a global benchmark crude oil that is produced in the North Sea and traded in London. It is typically the benchmark that is used to set the price for most of the oil from the Middle East. Another benchmark crude, West Texas Intermediate, closed at $86.20 a barrel on Friday. Each benchmark has an impact on gasoline prices in the United States, with the East Coast more affected by the Brent prices than other regions.