NEW YORK — It didn't happen Wednesday, it may not happen Thanksgiving day, but the price of oil seems destined to burst through the $100 mark sometime soon, leaving higher pump prices and rising heating fuel costs in its wake.
Energy futures balked on that drive Wednesday after the government reported that supplies at a key oil terminal in the Midwest rose for the first time in weeks. Analysts said it was a pause, not a retreat for energy futures that reached as high as $99.29 in electronic trading overnight.
"Not exciting enough to get us over the hump just yet," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.
Overall crude inventories fell, and distillates including heating oil dropped more than expected last week, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration reported.
The mixed report did little to shake prevailing view that oil supplies will tighten amid rising global demand, particularly from fast-growing economies in China and India.
"It's two steps forward, then one back in terms of this week's inventory cushion," said Tim Evans, an analyst at Citigroup Inc. in New York.
Wednesday's inventory report could mean more bad news for heating oil customers already expecting costs to rise 22 percent this winter. Heating oil futures fell 0.27 cent to settle at $2.6874 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange after earlier hitting $2.7154, a new record.
At the pump, meanwhile, gas prices fell 0.1 cent overnight to a national average of $3.089 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Prices have fallen 2.3 cents since last week, and are almost 14 cents below the record price of $3.227 a gallon set in May, a bit of good news for Thanksgiving holiday drivers.
Gas prices will likely remain flat or fall unless oil reaches $100 a barrel or higher, analysts say.
Crude prices retreated Wednesday, however, after a mixed inventory report that didn't do much to change a prevailing view that oil supplies will tighten amid rising demand.
Light, sweet crude for January delivery fell 74 cents to settle at $97.29 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Before the inventory report, prices rose as high as $99.29 a barrel in electronic trading to break the previous intraday record of $98.62 set earlier this month.
Crude prices are within the range of inflation-adjusted highs set in early 1980. Depending on how the adjustment is calculated, $38 a barrel then would be worth $96 to $103 or more today.
A swoon in the stock market also pressured oil prices Wednesday. Energy investors worry that falling equities are a symptom of a weakening economy, which would use less oil and gasoline.
Analysts said trading in energy futures was volatile Wednesday due to light volumes before Thanksgiving. The Nymex will be closed Thursday and will close early Friday.
"This is holiday trade, and some pension fund comes in with a sizable order ... and you're down half a buck," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates, in Galena, Ill.
Other energy futures were mixed. December gasoline fell 1.44 cents to settle at $2.4371 a gallon on the Nymex. December natural gas rose 7.3 cents to settle at $7.55 per 1,000 cubic feet. In a separate report, the EIA said natural gas inventories grew by 4 billion cubic feet last week, in line with expectations.
In London, December Brent crude fell 65 cents to settle at $94.84 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
Oil inventories fell by 1.1 million barrels last week, versus a 700,000 barrel increase analysts surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires, on average, had expected. Inventories at the closely watched Nymex delivery terminal in Cushing, Okla., rose by 1.2 million barrels, however. It was the first substantial increase in Cushing stocks in weeks, and the largest since the end of August.
The Cushing terminal is the physical delivery point for Nymex crude. Falling supplies there are seen as a symptom of a tight market. Those concerns ease when Cushing inventories rise.
The EIA also said refinery activity fell last week, countering expectations for a slight increase. Gasoline inventories grew less than expected, but distillate supplies fell by 2.4 million barrels, far more than expected.
The decline in overall crude supplies can be explained in part by imports, which fell by an average of 667,000 barrels a day, or about 6 percent, last week. Gasoline imports rose 11 percent.
Demand for gasoline remains tepid, a function of higher prices, analysts say. Demand for gasoline rose by 35,000 barrels last week, and by 0.3 percent over the last four weeks compared to the same period last year, the EIA said.