NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--Crude-oil futures settled at a four-month low Wednesday, tumbling toward levels last seen during the early stages of Libya's rebellion, on fears that Greece's debt crisis and a slowing global economy will reduce fuel demand.
Light, sweet crude oil for July delivery settled $4.56, or 4.6%, lower at $94.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after falling as low as $94.01 earlier in the session. Brent crude oil on the ICE futures exchange settled $2.95 lower at $117.21 a barrel. The Brent contract expired at settlement Wednesday.
Oil's decline, which came along with a drop in equities and a soaring dollar, began after a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed a drop in implied demand for oil and fuel products.
Average demand over the past four weeks has fallen by 3.2% compared with the same period last year. Refinery runs fell to 86.1% of capacity from 87.2% last week, signaling that refiners are cutting back on their production of gasoline and other fuels.
"The total product demand took a pretty big hit," said Carl Larry, director of derivatives and research at Blue Ocean Brokerage. "Diesel demand is down, jet-fuel demand is down. That just doesn't paint a rosy picture on the economy right now."
Futures fell through the level hit on the deep May 6 commodities selloff, breaking below the recent trading range between $95 and $105 a barrel. Wednesday's decline to $94.01 a barrel was the lowest level since Feb. 22, when escalating violence in Libya forced oil producers in the country to shut down operations.
Traders pegged the broad commodities and equities selloff to the dollar's surge against the euro. The euro fell below $1.42 for the first time since May 27. A higher dollar typically puts pressure on oil prices, by making crude more expensive for buyers in other currencies.
The euro's fall comes as Europe's leaders appear far from agreeing on a rescue package for Greece. Ratings agencies have also warned that banks across Europe could be stung by a Greek debt default.
Separately, the expiration of the July Brent contract forced traders to quickly switch their oil positions, extending declines.
"It was all about the dollar, then you had a technical breakdown of the market, and you had positions being liquidated ahead of the crude-oil expiration tomorrow. When you get close to expiration like this, and you get a strengthening dollar, it creates a perfect storm," said Mark Waggoner, president of Excel Futures.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average was recently down 186 points to 11889.
The weak oil-demand data added to a set of economic reports earlier Wednesday that pointed to the fragility of the U.S. economy. Conditions for manufacturers in the New York region deteriorated in June, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Empire State Manufacturing Survey. The index of general business conditions plunged by 20 points to -7.8, falling below zero for the first time since November.
Meanwhile, data showed U.S. core inflation posted its biggest gain in more than three years, according to the Labor Department.
The reports initially sent crude-oil prices lower, along with the stock market. And after a brief rebound, crude oil piled on losses. If equities remain weak, analysts said, oil futures would likely follow.
"By the end of the day, if the stock market remains weak, then that will continue to put pressure on petroleum as well," said Kyle Cooper, managing partner of IAF Energy Advisors. "The equities seem to be one of the driving factors."
Oil prices have taken cues from the stock market and economic indicators in recent weeks after tumbling from nearly $115 a barrel earlier this year. A slowdown in the U.S. economy has risen to become one of the major concerns among oil traders.
Front-month July reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 14.11 cents, or 4.6%, lower at $2.9235 a gallon. July heating oil settled 14.10 cents lower at $2.9848 a gallon.