Oil prices rose slightly on Wednesday as investors began to place bets ahead of Friday's monthly jobs report that figures to provide fresh clues about the strength of the rebounding economy and demand for oil.
At the same time, gasoline pump prices across the country continued their slow slide toward levels not seen since a year ago.
Benchmark crude for July delivery rose 28 cents to settle at $72.82 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil prices were supported by recent economic data that came in better than expected, including a report Wednesday that showed pending home sales were at their highest level in April since October. Demand for crude products also has been increasing.
Retail gasoline prices fell for the 27th straight day, dropping 0.4 cent to a national average of $2.723 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. Prices have fallen by 4.8 cents in the past week and 17.2 cents in the past month. Prices remain 19.8 cents over year-ago levels.
Gasoline consumption rose 5 percent from a year ago in the week ended Friday, according to the weekly MasterCard SpendingPulse report released Wednesday afternoon.
The report — which measures spending in the MasterCard payments network, coupled with estimates for other payment forms, including cash and check — said that, except for last year, consumption typically climbs the week before the Memorial Day holiday. This year's Memorial Day holiday was a week later than last year.
The latest read on how the U.S. economy is doing comes Friday when the unemployment report for May is released.
"If this market is disappointed, it could be a new leg down for gas prices," said Phil Flynn of PFGBest.
Rising stock markets helped oil prices on Wednesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up about 175 points less than an hour before the close. The NASDAQ and the S&P 500 were each up more than 2 percent.
Oil and gasoline prices have fallen about 16 percent in the past month, even as the spill in the Gulf of Mexico worsens. Tankers bringing imported oil to Gulf ports and taking refined product out continue to work around the huge slick at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
In other Nymex trading in July contracts, heating oil rose 3.55 cents to settle at $2.0059 a gallon, and gasoline added 4.36 cents to settle at $2.261 a gallon. Natural gas was up 17.6 cents to settle at $4.424 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, the Brent crude July contact rose $1.04 to settle at $73.75 on the ICE futures exchange.
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