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OTTAWA – Oil prices continued to sputter ahead of an expected decision by the Bank of Canada on interest rates, potentially clouding recent suggestions that the economy has shaken off a prolonged downturn in commodity prices.

Central bank officials have been signalling in recent months that the BoC could raise its benchmark interest rate as early as Wednesday, following improved economic data. But a sharp decline in oil prices threatens to raise borrowing costs in oil-rich provinces that are still reeling from the years-long downturn.

Futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate fell in morning trading before regaining losses in the afternoon, with prices settling around US$44.50. Prices fell below the US$50 threshold in late May, as efforts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries failed to bring balance back to global oil markets.

Analysts are mostly in agreement that the BoC will raise its benchmark rate this week, despite short-term commodity fluctuations that have hammered oil-dependent provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.

“It has been a big negative for the Canadian economy, but in terms of the layoffs and the reduction in capital spending, the big negatives are mostly behind us,” said Avery Shenfeld, the chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets in Toronto.

Shenfeld said prices will have to fall well below their current levels before it would trigger a material shift in the BoC’s strategy, especially as oil and gas producers have significantly lowered their operating costs in recent years.

“If I thought that prices could drop to US$35 or US$30, and stay at that level, we may have another leg down in energy sector activity,” he said. “But I’m also sceptical whether oil prices can stay at the level they’re at.”

The rising cost of debt is likely to impact oil producing provinces most directly. In its 2017 budget the NDP government in Alberta projected an average price of US$55 through the fiscal year. Every dollar below the average equates to a $300-million loss in revenues.

Global oil prices have failed to ride any upward momentum in recent years, despite widespread estimates that prices would gradually climb upward over the next few years.

Many analysts have begun cutting back their outlooks for crude, as fears over growing production from U.S. shale basins spurs anxiety in oil markets. On Monday Paris-based bank BNP Paribas revised down its outlook for crude, to US$49 per barrel for the year. 

In response to falling prices, OPEC officials have reiterated that they will do “whatever it takes” to raise prices. Some media reports have suggested the group may try to convince Libyan and Nigerian leaders to agree to production cuts, two countries who are currently exempt from the production curbs.

Both countries have brought major oilfields and oil infrastructure back online, flooding the market with cheap crude. Production in both countries has grown more than 500,000 barrels per day recently, enough to stoke concerns in the market and put downward pressure on prices.

“If we see Libyan and Nigerian production sustained at these levels until the end of the year, OPEC has its work cut out for it,” said Michael Cohen, the head of energy markets research at Barclays in New York.

A decision to raise rates would mark the first hike in two years, following the central bank’s decision to lower its benchmark rate in July 2015 amid tepid economic growth and plummeting oil prices. Its benchmark rate is currently at 0.5 per cent, with analysts expecting a quarter of a percentage point rise this week.

Rising trade data, rising housing prices in some major cities and improving employment conditions—including in Alberta—have encouraged central bank officials to raise rates, following interest rate hikes in the U.S.

Financial Post