--Crude drops under $100/Bbl
--Europe concerns keep pressure on oil prices
--Analysts eye U.S. gasoline demand declines
By Jerry A. DiColo
Crude futures aimed lower Friday as financial markets brace for the latest talks in Athens on Greece's debt situation.
Light, sweet crude for February delivery recently traded $1.44, or 1.4%, lower at $98.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The February contract expires at settlement Friday, and the March contract recently traded $1.39 lower at $99.15 a barrel.
Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange traded 68 cents lower at $110.87 a barrel.
After holding just above $100 a barrel Thursday, prices fell as oil traders parsed what could be an initial agreement between Greece and private investors to reduce the struggling nation's debt burden.
While a preliminary deal could be announced as early as Friday, according to a Greek official, oil investors remain concerned that the talks won't mend the many cracks in Europe's economic situation, depressing oil demand in the region.
"There are still a lot of questions about what will happen with Greece, what will happen in Europe, so there is a little bit of concern," said Phil Flynn, an analyst with PFG Best in Chicago.
He added that early declines were also due to the weak U.S. oil inventory report released Thursday.
"The market is a little woozy after the big drop in gasoline demand that we saw yesterday," he said.
With Europe's economy facing a turn into recession, a recovery in the U.S. will be crucial to keeping oil demand steady. But even as economic data improves in the U.S., the use of fuel products continues to decline.
The Energy Department on Thursday reported that demand for gasoline, the most widely used petroleum product, fell to an 11-year low below 8 million barrels a day last week. Meanwhile, oil use slumped 7.2% from a year earlier in the last four weeks, and was the weakest since April, 1997.
Some analysts are concerned that prices near triple-digits could keep demand low.
"As oil prices have remained high, demand has been crimped and would appear to be worsening in response to high pricing. At some point, a disconnect could develop between an improving macro and weakening oil demand," said Jim Ritterbusch, head of oil-trading advisor Ritterbusch and Associates.
Front-month February reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, recently traded 2.12 cents lower at $2.7946 a gallon. February heating oil recently traded 2.09 cents lower at $3.0151 a gallon.
--By Jerry A. DiColo, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2155; [email protected]