Energy prices ticked higher Wednesday after government reports showed gains in industrial production and new home building.
Weak fuel consumption has kept oil and natural gas prices from rising higher during the past few months. But reports by the Federal Reserve and the Commerce Department suggested that the U.S. may soon increase its appetite for petroleum.
A report on industrial production from the Federal Reserve showed gains in manufacturing, mining and utilities. It was the first collective increase since August.
The Commerce Department said new home and apartment construction increased in January to the highest level in six months. However, home construction may not hold at that rate as applications for building permits fell nearly 5 percent.
Benchmark oil for March delivery added 32 cents to settle at $77.33 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices rose as high as $77.82 earlier in the day, the highest in two weeks.
Uncertainty about the European economy pushed prices in different directions over the past few trading days. After jumping nearly 4 percent on Tuesday, oil prices have mostly leveled off.
"The market seems to have priced in all the news, and it's waiting for the next story," analyst Phil Flynn said.
At the pump, retail gasoline prices fell overnight to the lowest level this year. The national average lost less than a penny at $2.608 a gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service.
A gallon of regular unleaded is 13.8 cents cheaper than it was a month ago, but it's 64.8 cents more expensive than the same time last year.
Experts say that gas prices should reach a national average of $3 a gallon by this summer as the weather warms and Americans spend more time outdoors and on the road. Analyst Stephen Schork noted that motorists devoted a smaller chunk of their budgets to gasoline in 2009 than the previous two years, and that may persuade retailers to push prices higher this year.
In other Nymex trading in March contracts, heating oil increased 1.04 cents to settle at $2.0067 a gallon, and gasoline rose 1.89 cents to settle at $2.0071 a gallon. Natural gas gained 7.6 cents to settle at $5.386 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, Brent crude added 30 cents at $75.98 a barrel on the ICE futures exchange.
Associated Press writers Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.
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