* IEA says strong global demand mostly behind price run-up
* U.S. refining operations for May lowest since 1985
* Refiners say weak U.S. gasoline demand reduce operations (Adds comments from IEA official, details on FTC probe)
By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - Oil refineries running at the lowest capacity in nearly three decades years does not indicate that U.S. refiners are manipulating prices for gasoline and other products, an official with the International Energy Agency said on Tuesday.
The Federal Trade Commission said on Monday it would investigate, in part, whether U.S. refiners operating at about 82 percent of capacity in May, down around 7 percentage points from a year earlier, was an attempt to limit petroleum supplies in the market.
May’s 82 percent utilization rate for refiners was the lowest for the pre-summer driving season 1985.
“Our analysis has not shown anything particularly unusual in through-put rates so far” at U.S. refineries, David Fyfe, who heads the IEA’s Oil Industry and Market Division, told reporters after speaking at a conference in Washington.
When pressed further on whether the IEA had seen anything to indicate U.S. refiners were trying to manipulate the market, he responded, “We certainly haven’t come across anything that suggests that.”
Fyfe emphasized that the IEA takes a broader view of energy issues and does not have the resources like the FTC to zero in on what is occurring in the U.S. refining sector.
Oil traders and analysts have said the low runs at refineries were mainly the result of weaker gasoline demand caused by the recession, high unemployment and more ethanol being mixed into motor fuel.
If U.S. refiners were keeping gasoline off the market to manipulate prices, then foreign traders would export more fuel to the U.S. to market to make a profit, which has not been the case, they said. (Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Alden Bentley)