After government reports gave a mixed read on the U.S. economic recovery, oil prices on Thursday settled close to where they began.
The Commerce Department said companies trimmed orders for manufactured goods in February, suggesting that businesses were limiting spending. Meanwhile the Labor Department said fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, indicating that employers could be expanding their work forces.
Benchmark crude prices fluctuated as traders digested the news, rising as high as $106.69 a barrel before dropping back. The contract for May delivery fell 15 cents to settle at $105.60 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Prices have jumped 24 percent since the middle of February, when rebellion broke out in Libya and eventually squeezed off production that supplied nearly 2 percent of the world's oil.
As fighting continued in Libya, companies like Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Austria-based OMV, were removing workers in Yemen, where anti-government protests have been intensifying. Yemen produces only 0.3 percent of the world's oil, according to the International Energy Administration, but it is located on one of the world's most strategic shipping lanes.
About 3.2 million barrels of oil per day — more than twice what Libya produced — pass through a strait near Yemen that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. The Energy Information Administration has said that disruptions in that shipping lane would force oil tankers to take a costly detour around the southern tip of Africa to reach western markets.
The U.S. embassy in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, is warning U.S. citizens to stay away from the presidential palace and other places where large crowds may gather. "Public demonstrations, which in the past have led to violence, confrontation, and casualties, have grown particularly dangerous during the Yemeni weekend," the embassy said in a statement on its website.
The world is still flush with surplus oil, yet traders say the fighting in North Africa and the Middle East, combined with the Japanese nuclear crisis, could make it difficult for oil producers to keep up with rising demand.
PFGBest analyst Phil Flynn estimates that world oil demand will rise by 1 to 2 million barrels per day as Japan replaces power lost from its damaged nuclear reactors, and other countries like Germany take aging nuclear facilities offline.
Still, after a swift rise, oil traders are bracing for a downturn in energy markets and have been watching how the U.S. economy handles higher energy prices. Analysts are concerned that rising fuel prices could impact business and consumer spending, which would slow the economic recovery. They are also gauging how European financial problems — Irish bank bailouts and the collapse of Portugal's government — will affect global energy demand.
"People are nervous about a correction that will inevitably come," Flynn said. "So, at the first sign of bad news, they sell, and when it doesn't fall that much, they jump back in."
Oil prices were buoyed on Thursday by lower U.S. unemployment claims, which fell almost 11 percent in the last seven weeks. Employers may be stepping up hiring and that would likely mean increased gasoline demand as more people rejoin the daily commute.
Gasoline prices rose Thursday to a national average of $3.551 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. A gallon of regular is 38 cents higher than a month ago and 73.5 cents higher than last year.
Natural gas prices fell after the government reported that U.S. supplies dropped by 6 billion cubic feet, but remain above the five-year average. The contract for April delivery lost 9.1 cents to settle at $4.244 per 1,000 cubic feet. Prices had increased about 13 percent since March 10. After the Energy Information Administration's report fell within analysts' expectations, traders sold to lock in profits, analyst Stephen Schork said.
In other Nymex trading for April contracts, heating oil added nearly a penny to settle at $3.0787 a gallon and gasoline futures rose 2.22 cents to settle at $3.0508 per gallon.
In London, Brent crude gained 13 cents to settle at $115.60 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
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