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Oil prices hold near 2-year high Add to ...

Oil prices held above $90 a barrel, close to their highest in two years on Thursday as cold weather boosted demand and U.S. stockpiles shrank while Russian oil pipeline supplies to Europe were partly halted.

Unusually cold weather in the United States and Europe has helped to spur the latest leg of a more than 30 per cent rally from a year-low struck in May.

U.S. crude for February was flat at $90.44 a barrel by 1311 GMT, after settling at the highest level since October 2008 on Wednesday, just off a session peak of $90.80. ICE Brent crude traded seven cents lower at $93.58.

Wednesday's strong settlement followed U.S. inventory data showing a big drop in crude stocks, although analysts said there could be an element of distortion because of a year-end draw down for tax purposes.

"In the (U.S. inventory) report per se there was nothing apart from a normal seasonal draw-down," said Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix.

"The market is currently only interested in a technical attack of the recent highs," he said, adding prices could also be exaggerated by thin trade over the holiday period.

Patrick Armstrong of London-based Armstrong Investment Managers said the price could go for $100 because funds were allocating more money to commodities to preserve the real value of investment portfolios.

"But I don't think we're going to see scenarios for spikes... I think we are going to see more production because oil is above $90," he said referring to OPEC.

Core OPEC ministers were arriving in Cairo on Thursday although the group has said it would hold no formal meetings before June and was keen to see prices driven by fundamentals rather than speculators before it raised output.

Stockpiles in the world's top oil user have fallen by 19 million barrels since Nov. 26, roughly equivalent to one day of U.S. fuel consumption and the biggest three-week drop since 1998. Demand has been stoked by sub-normal temperatures, which are expected to continue.

Forecaster AccuWeather.com expects temperatures in the U.S. Northeast, the world's top heating oil market, to average mostly below normal for the next week, while U.S. heating oil demand was expected to average 4.6 per cent above normal this week.

In Europe, Russian oil supplies to Germany and Poland were reduced because of a fire on a pipeline running via Belarus, in a development likely to remind markets of previous supply cuts after pricing rows between Moscow and Minsk.

After a contraction in demand following global economic recession, fuel use has begun to rebound and is expected to continue growing next year taking absolute oil consumption to an all-time high, although the rate of growth will still be lower than a peak hit in 2004.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, however, has yet to change its output targets, which have officially been the same since it announced a record cut in production in December 2008.

Leading exporter Saudi Arabia has said $70-$80 is the best range for producers and consumers, ensuring enough revenue to generate investment in new supply while avoiding the economic damage that could destroy demand.

Others in the group have pressed for a higher price and some analysts consider the world could tolerate that, especially as waves of quantitative easing have helped to weaken the dollar, making dollar-denominated commodities, such as oil relatively cheap Serene Lim, an oil analyst at ANZ, saw scope for the rally to continue before it squeezed the economy.

"Oil prices anywhere above $110 will start to eat into economic growth," Ms. Lim said.

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