NEW YORK — Oil prices held above $91 per barrel in light trading Monday, the first day after the Christmas break. An unexpectedly large drop in U.S. supplies pushed crude prices above that threshold last week. Any chance that prices would retreat again disappeared over the weekend after OPEC ministers signaled oil production would not be bumped up.
Benchmark oil for February delivery fell 32 cents to $91.19 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices hit $90 for the first time in two years this month with demand starting to tick higher.
And more investment banks see a return to $100-per-barrel oil next year.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for 40 percent of global crude production, influences oil prices through production quotas. While higher prices means stronger revenue, OPEC is also aware that an overheated oil market would stunt economic growth and eventually cut energy demand.
Though on the rise, the amount of oil being consumed remains far below the boom markets of just a few years ago.
U.S. petroleum demand has increased year-over-year, but it has not come close to the eight years that preceded the recession, according to government figures released this month.
Cameron Hanover analyst Peter Beutel said that it is Wall Street — not American motorists — pushing oil prices higher as investors snap up thousands of futures contracts.
“As long as they have signs the economy is recovering, they are happy buying oil,” Beutel said. “As we look ahead, we see nothing that can turn prices back down except another recession.”
The most visible sign for most consumers that oil is getting more expensive is the corner gas station, where a gallon of gas is back above $3.
The national average added less than a penny overnight to $3.042 per gallon, according to auto club AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. A gallon of regular unleaded is 18.3 cents higher than it was a month ago and 44.2 cents more than it was last year.
But in states from California to Connecticut, $3-per-gallon gas is fading fast in the rearview mirror.
In trading for January contracts, heating oil gave up 1.14 cents to $2.5294 a gallon, gasoline futures fell 1.18 cents to $2.4308 a gallon and natural gas dropped 7.7 cents to $4.006 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, Brent crude lost 2 cents to $93.75 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.