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Crude oil stalls in march toward $100 after report says inventories fell less than expected

NEW YORK - Oil prices stalled in their climb toward $100 a barrel Wednesday after a government report said oil inventories fell less than expected last week while refinery utilization remained flat.

Oil investors largely viewed the report as neutral in that it confirmed a view that oil supplies are falling, but offered no real surprises. A larger than expected drop would most certainly have propelled oil past $100 a barrel for the first time.

Crude inventories did fall at the closely watched New York Mercantile Exchange delivery terminal in Cushing, Okla., but that did not appear to be enough to propel prices higher.

'We got kind of a mixed reaction,' said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.

Light, sweet crude for December delivery fell 33 cents to settle at $96.37 a barrel on the Nymex. Before the report's release, prices rose as high as $98.62, a new record. Trading was volatile, with futures falling by nearly $2 a barrel at times in afternoon trading.

At the pump, meanwhile, the national average price of a gallon of gas rose 1.9 cents overnight to $3.043, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Prices are up nearly 29 cents since mid-October and are 85 cents higher than a year ago.

Some analysts think oil prices have far outpaced levels that are justified by the underlying principles of supply and demand. These analysts blame market speculators for pushing crude prices to record levels, and predict that a correction, or sharp decline, is imminent.

'At some point, the market does actually discount the bullish possibilities,' said Tim Evans, an analyst at Citigroup Inc., in New York. 'That risk of exhaustion is very present here.'

A separate report Wednesday by the International Energy Agency warning of an oil supply crunch by 2015 was not enough to send prices higher. The IEA concluded that growing demand for energy in China and India will boost the world's oil needs by more than 50 percent by 2030.

December gasoline futures rose 0.56 cent to settle at $2.4406 a gallon on the Nymex, and December heating oil futures rose 0.97 cent to settle at $2.6175 a gallon. December natural gas futures fell 23.9 cents to settle at $7.624 per 1,000 cubic feet on expectations that inventories rose last week and on forecasts for warmer weather in the Midwest and Northeast.

In London, December Brent crude fell 2 cents to settle at $93.24 a barrel.

The government's Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday that crude supplies fell by 800,000 barrels during the week ended Nov. 2, half the 1.6 million barrel decline analysts surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires, on average, had expected.

Supplies at the Nymex delivery terminal in Cushing, Okla., fell by 1.7 million barrels.

Refinery utilization remained flat at 86.2 percent of capacity. Analysts had expected an increase of 0.8 percentage point.

Gasoline inventories fell by 800,000 barrels last week, countering analyst expectations for an increase of 200,000 barrels. Inventories of distillates, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, rose by 100,000 barrels last week. Analysts expected a decline of 500,000 barrels.

Imports of crude oil rose by an average of 275,000 barrels a day last week to 9.7 million barrels a day. Gasoline imports rose by 107,000 barrels last week to an average of 1.1 million barrels a day.

Demand for gasoline rose slightly last week, by about 12,000 barrels, the EIA said. Over the last four weeks, demand is up about 0.8 percent over the same period last year.

However, both Flynn and Evans questioned the EIA demand figures, noting they are often revised downward after the fact. If oil and gas prices continue to rise, demand will come down, analysts say.

'I would be surprised if we didn't see some kind of demand slowdown after a price increase of this level,' Flynn said. 'I'm not sure that we've seen the impact of this price spike yet on demand.'

Oil prices are up 42 percent since August. Their seemingly relentless climb does raise the question of how high energy prices will go. If crude does keep going up, it might be some time until consumers see relief at the pump. Some analysts predict prices could rise as high as $3.50 to $4 a gallon next summer.

The Energy Information Administration predicts gas prices will remain above $2.90 a gallon for the rest of the year and will set a new record national average of $3.235 a gallon by May. In May 2007, prices peaked at $3.227 a gallon as refiners, faced with a series of unexpected outages, struggled to produce enough gas to meet demand.

Meanwhile, estimates of where oil is headed from here range from $50 a barrel to $120. Flynn, who long ago predicted prices would rise to near $100 this year, now says he is beginning to doubt whether prices will actually reach $100 a barrel during the current price spike.

'I think the market is due for a correction,' Flynn said.