NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — As bombs fall in Beirut, pipelines explode in Nigeria and Iran shakes its fist at the West, energy traders and motorists alike are wondering one thing: How high can oil prices go?”If another major event takes place, it’s not at all unrealistic for oil to spike to $100,” said Bruce Lanni, an oil analyst at A.G. Edwards. “And there’s no fundamental reason in this current climate to see oil prices retreat below $70 in the next few months.”
The debate, or speculation, focuses on the type and likelihood of another “major event” in the next few months.Oil jumped to record highs Thursday and Friday, breaking the $78 mark, on fears that fighting between Israel and Lebanon will spread to the broader Middle East, which accounts for 30 percent of the world’s oil output and holds 60 percent of its proven reserves.
For now, all eyes are on Iran. The country, the world’s fifth-largest producer, could very well be referred to the United Nations Security Council after if failed to respond earlier this week to a package of Western incentives intended to get it to curb its nuclear program.
It could also get dragged into the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, as the country is widely believed to support the Hezbollah fighters that Israel is currently chasing in southern Lebanon, and may be supplying the rockets now hitting Israeli cities.
The ultimate fear is that either way, Iran may cut off its oil exports or, worse, attempt to disrupt tanker traffic through the narrow Strait of Hormuz just off its coast. About a quarter of the world’s oil passes through the strait on its way to market.
But experts say the latter scenario isn’t likely.
“Markets tend to over-react,” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Iran doesn’t need to be sinking ships in the Gulf, they have other cards to play,” like increasing support for fighters in Iraq or Lebanon.
James Phillips, a research fellow at the think tank Heritage Foundation, said Iran has only limited military capability to disrupt shipping. He also said Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which can export oil via pipeline, is completely dependent on the Gulf to export its product.
“It would truly have to be an act of desperation on Iran’s part,” said Phillips, saying it would take a U.S. strike on its oil facilities to push the country that far.
Even with that worst-case scenario aside, analysts are still split over how much higher worries about the Middle East might drive oil prices.
“I don’t see the violence quitting anytime soon,” said Neal Dingmann, an energy analyst at the investment firm Pritchard Capital Partners. “I think we continue up and to the right.”
Dingmann predicts prices of $80 to $85 a barrel over the next couple of months barring any new major events, and $90 to $100 if things escalate.
But A.G. Edwards’ Lanni, noting all the other hot spots from Nigeria to North Korea to Venezuela, thinks tensions are near a peak.
“We’re most likely at or near the worst of all scenarios geopolitically,” he said “Common sense tells you that at least some of these situations will get resolved.”
There is one thing lurking just around the corner that Lanni said could cause his projected spike to $100.
“The only other event that I can put my hands on now is hurricane season,” he said.
And while there is some debate over the likelihood of another big event, energy analysts said that even if world peace broke out tomorrow, fundamental supply and demand would still keep oil in the $50 to $60 range.