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Oil Edges Off Three-Year High on Extension of Sanctions Relief to Iran

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01/12/2018 | 04:28pm CEST
By Alison Sider and Sarah McFarlane 

Oil prices slipped off a three-year high Friday after reports that President Donald Trump has decided to extend sanctions relief to Iran, easing worries of a supply disruption that had helped push prices higher this week.

U.S. crude futures recently traded down 21 cents, or 0.33%, at $63.59 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent, the global benchmark, was down 11 cents, or 0.16%, at $69.15 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe.

Mr. Trump decided Thursday afternoon to continue waiving sanctions against Iran, according to people familiar with the matter. The decision would keep the landmark Iran nuclear agreement intact for at least another several months.

Mr. Trump faced a series of deadlines waivers this week, and the prospect of renewed sanctions that could crimp Iran's crude exports contributed to higher prices in recent days.

The decision is due to be announced Friday if it stands.

While prices fell, the reaction was somewhat muted, which analysts said is a sign that oil's rally isn't yet over. The U.S. benchmark is up more than 5.5% this year so far, and both benchmarks rose for four straight days before Friday.

"This price response to the Iran headlines looks orderly and limited thus far in suggesting a strong fundamental underpinning that is allowing the crude benchmarks to easily absorb bearish headlines while heavily emphasizing fresh bullish news," Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates, wrote in a client note.

Prices have rallied over 50% since June last year, propelled by geopolitical tensions, supply disruptions and production cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. More recently it was boosted by extremely cold weather in the U.S. and China, along with protests in Iran, where the lifting of international sanctions two years ago hasn't provided the relief expected.

"For those hoping for an end to the bull market, it's probably a good idea to wait a few days before calling an end to the rally," analysts at TAC Energy said.

On Friday, prices were also lower on data from China showing a fall in monthly crude imports.

Reports that China customs data showed a sharp fall in December crude oil imports from November prompted the market to edge lower, having breached $70 a barrel Thursday.

The lower imports were to be expected, according to Richard Mallinson, analyst at consultancy Energy Aspects, as Chinese refiners worked through their inventories. "It still rounds off a really strong year," he said.

Mr. Mallinson said Chinese imports were up by about 800,000 barrels a day on average last year and forecast imports to grow by a further 400,000 to 500,000 barrels a day over 2018.

Gasoline futures recently fell 0.28% to $1.8318 a gallon. Diesel futures edged down 0.03% to $2.0761 a gallon.

Write to Alison Sider at alison.sider@wsj.com and Sarah McFarlane at sarah.mcfarlane@wsj.com

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