Oil prices rebound even as inventories jump

NEW YORK - August 20, 2008 It was a volatile day for energy prices, which initially retreated after the U.S. Energy Department said a big gain in imports drove crude inventories up by a hefty 9.4 million barrels in the week ended Aug. 15. The figure came in much higher than the average analyst forecast for a 1.7 million-barrel increase, according to energy information provider Platts.

But not all U.S. fuel supplies were abundant. Gasoline inventories shrank by a larger-than-expected 6.2 million barrels to below-average levels, the EIA said, while distillate inventories - which include heating oil and diesel fuel - rose by less than expected. Gasoline and heating oil prices, like crude, ended the session higher.

And given that the hurricane season is not even halfway over, traders remain nervous about the possibility of storms striking oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. Doubt over Russia's adherence to a ceasefire with Georgia, where a key oil pipeline is located, and escalating tension between Russia and the United States was also keeping a floor under prices.

Light, sweet crude for September delivery rose 45 cents to $114.98 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after rising as high as $117.03 before the inventory data was released, falling as low as $112.61, and then rebounding again. The September contract expired on Wednesday; the October contract finished up $1.01 at $115.56 a barrel.

The fact that oil prices lifted in the face of a large rise in crude inventories and another rebound in the U.S. dollar was significant, said James Cordier, president of Tampa, Fla.-based trading firms Liberty Trading Group and OptionSellers.com.

"We had two of the most bearish factors thrown at oil today, and we're closing moderately higher," Cordier said, adding that it indicates that oil's recent selloff might be over. "We're seeing supply concerns go back into the price of a barrel of oil."

Since mid-July, crude prices had pulled back by about $35, or nearly 25 percent, from their July 11 trading record of $147.27. The retreat arrived as the dollar recovered ground against other major currencies, and as evidence emerged that Western Europe's and Japan's economies are weakening alongside that of the United States - which could put a damper on global energy demand.

Gasoline demand averaged about 9.5 million barrels per day over the last four weeks, or 1.6 percent lower than the same period last year, the EIA said Wednesday.

As crude prices have fallen, so have gasoline prices. The average U.S. retail price for a gallon of gasoline was at $3.717 on Wednesday, down more than a penny from Tuesday and down nearly 10 percent from the July 17 record of $4.114, according to auto club AAA, Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.

But Goldman Sachs analysts on Wednesday pointed out that while the dollar and oil have been correlating recently, there are other factors that affect the price of oil besides the dollar.

"We reiterate that fundamentals in the oil market suggest a return to a rising oil price environment," wrote Goldman analyst Giovanni Serio.

In addition to the hurricane season and political conflicts, developing economies are still expected to boost their energy use in the coming years and keep oil prices high. Many analysts say the price of oil - still more than 60 percent higher than a year ago - appears to be consolidating at current levels.

"Consumers can take some solace in the sell-off, but there are more supportive factors down the road here," said John Kilduff, senior vice president of risk management at MF Global LLC in New York.

The AccuWeather.com Hurricane Center said Wednesday that it predicts Tropical Storm Fay will make a third landfall Thursday morning along the Southeast coast of Florida. Only a couple forecasters have predicted that Fay will bounce back toward key facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are thunderstorms in the eastern Atlantic that some traders are betting will develop into tropical storms.

And with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting in early September, supply concerns could rise further if countries decide to lower their output in response to slower demand. Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said he might propose an output cut at the next OPEC meeting.

Heating oil futures rose 3.98 cents to settle at $3.1635 a gallon on the Nymex, while gasoline futures rose 4.64 cents to settle at $2.9103 a gallon. Natural gas futures rose 10.1 cents to $8.077 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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