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Oil falls ahead of OPEC meeting

CRUDE oil prices fell yesterday ahead of an OPEC meeting where investors expect the cartel to keep production levels unchanged.

Benchmark crude for January contracts fell 89 cents to settle at US$72.47 per barrel the final day of trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Crude for February delivery fell 70 cents to settle at US$73.72 a barrel.

Leaders of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries reiterated yesterday that the group doesn't plan to change output levels at its meeting Tuesday in Luanda, Angola,

OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri of Libya said there is consensus within the oil-producing bloc to maintain its production targets into 2010, indicating the group plans to hold output steady.

"There is a consensus that there is no change," el-Badri told reporters when asked about OPEC's output plans at the upcoming meeting in Luanda. Even for next year, he said, changes to output are "not on our radar at this time."

El-Badri said prices are "very comfortable" for now, reflecting a sentiment sounded by several of the group's oil ministers in recent weeks.

Crude prices have staged an incredible turnaround in the past year, more than doubling from a low near US$35 a barrel to trade to a zone many producing countries say they're happy with.

"The market would be surprised if there was any change to output," said Clarence Chu, a trader with Hudson Capital Energy in Singapore. "At near US$75, the price is high enough to fund governments and investment, but not so high it damages the global economic recovery."

Iraq took back a remote oil well from Iranian forces over the weekend, a confrontation that briefly sent oil prices higher Friday on investor concerns about a wider conflict, although analysts quickly excluded a lasting impact on the market.

The dollar was slightly higher against other major currencies, making commodities more expensive for foreign buyers.

In other Nymex trading in January contracts, heating oil fell 1.15 cents to settle at US$1.9452 while gasoline fell 2.57 cents to settle at US$1.8691. Natural gas fell 11.3 cents to settle at US$5.669 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, Brent crude for February delivery fell 76 cents to settle at US$72.99 on the ICE Futures exchange.


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