By Christopher Johnson
LONDON (Reuters) - Oil prices steadied on Friday after almost a week of sharp rises as Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms in a century, drove towards Florida after tearing through the Caribbean.
Irma is the second major hurricane to approach the United States in two weeks and has already killed 14, flattening whole islands. Its predecessor, Harvey, shut a quarter of U.S. refineries and 8 percent of U.S. oil production.
"Hurricanes can have a lasting effect on refinery and industry demand," said Eugen Weinberg, head of commodities research at Commerzbank in Frankfurt. "The impact of the forces of nature on U.S. oil production should not be overestimated – nor should their impact on demand be underestimated."
Brent crude <LCOc1> was up 16 cents at $54.65 a barrel by 1145 GMT, after earlier reaching its highest level since April at $54.80. U.S. light crude oil <CLc1> was 14 cents lower at $48.95 barrel.
Brent found some support from news that Saudi Arabia will cut oil supply allocations to its customers worldwide in October by 350,000 barrels per day (bpd).
U.S. crude prices fell as a result of low refining activity following Harvey, which sharply reduced demand for oil to process, traders said.
Harvey's impact was also felt in oil production. U.S. oil output fell by almost 8 percent, from 9.5 million barrels per day (bpd) to 8.8 million bpd, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). <C-OUT-T-EIA>
But the slowdown in refining and output should be temporary.
"Most refineries are restarting and we expect a near-full recovery by month-end," U.S. investment bank Jefferies said.
Port and refinery closures along the Gulf coast and harsh sea conditions in the Caribbean have also affected shipping.
"Imports (of oil) to the U.S. Gulf Coast fell to levels not seen since the 1990s," ANZ bank said.
It will take weeks for the U.S. petroleum industry to return to full capacity, analysts say.
Hurricane Irma hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Friday, heading for Cuba and the Bahamas. It was predicted to reach Florida by Sunday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said that Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, with wind speeds of 160-185 miles per hours (260-295 km/h).
On Irma's heels, Hurricane Jose is heading for the Caribbean Leeward islands, which have just been devastated by Irma, with wind speeds of 120 mph (195 km/h).
(Writing by Christopher Johnson and Dmitry Zhdannikov; Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Greg Mahlich)