NEW YORK Oil prices fell sharply Thursday after the Energy Department reported unexpected declines in crude oil and gasoline supplies last week, but said the drop in crude inventories was due to temporary delays in unloading oil tankers along the Gulf Coast. A stronger dollar and concerns about gas demand also weighed on prices.
Retail gas prices, meanwhile, rose to a new record above $3.95 a gallon.
Light, sweet crude for July delivery fell $4.23 to $126.80 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, their lowest level since early last week. Prices were more than $2 lower in morning trading before the EIA report was issued, but shot up by more than $2 a barrel immediately after the report's release before turning lower again.
The initial ambivalent reaction to the inventory report partly reflects a deeper battle between investors who believe prices have risen far beyond levels that can be justified by underlying supply and demand fundamentals, and those who believe speculative money will continue flowing into oil futures, sending prices higher regardless of the market's fundamentals.
"You're seeing some big funds in there throwing money around on both sides of the market," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Ill.
In its weekly inventory report, the department's Energy Information Administration said crude oil inventories fell by 8.8 million barrels last week, while gasoline supplies fell by 3.2 million barrels. Analysts surveyed by energy research firm Platts had expected slight increases in supplies of both.
But the EIA also offered a rare explanatory note on the Gulf Coast tanker problems. That could mean there will be a big jump in crude inventories in next week's report, analysts said. Gulf ports have closed many times in recent months due to fog, said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago.
"This is the worst year I can remember for fog," Flynn said.
Also putting some weight on prices were supplies of distillates, including heating oil and diesel fuel, which rose by 1.6 million barrels last week, double what analysts had expected. July heating oil futures plummeted 13 cents to $3.6943 a gallon on that news.
"Heating oil is dragging the complex lower," Ritterbusch said.
The surprise drop in gasoline supplies propelled June gas futures to a new trading record of $3.52 a gallon on the Nymex. But gas later retreated, following the rest of the complex, to trade down 3.26 cents at $3.415 a gallon.
At the pump, meanwhile, the average national price of a gallon of gas rose 0.8 cent Thursday to a record $3.952, according to a survey of stations by AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Analysts and the Energy Department forecast prices will rise above the psychologically important $4 level soon, on a national basis. Prices are already that high in many parts of the country, and are averaging more than $4 in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
Diesel prices are also soaring. The national average price of a gallon of diesel fuel rose 0.9 cent Thursday to a record national average of $4.787. Diesel prices are above $5 a gallon in some areas, and are pulling prices of food and consumer goods higher; diesel is used by most trucks, trains and ships.
High prices are cutting consumers' appetite for fuel; demand fell slightly, on average, over the last four weeks, EIA data show. Data provided by the firm that publishes the MasterCard SpendingPulse survey showed that gasoline demand fell by 7.6 percent last Friday, the first day of the long Memorial Day weekend, compared to last year. More data on Memorial Day weekend gasoline demand won't be available until next week.
Concerns about weak demand pushed oil prices sharply lower earlier this week. Crude futures also faced headwinds from the dollar, which rose Thursday against the euro and British pound. Investors who buy commodities such as oil as a hedge against inflation when the dollar is falling sell when the greenback strengthens. Also, a stronger dollar makes oil more expensive to investors dealing in foreign currencies.
In other Nymex trading, July natural gas futures fell 38 cents to $11.615 per 1,000 cubic feet. In a separate report, the EIA said natural gas inventories rose by 87 billion cubic feet last week, in line with analyst estimates.
In London, July Brent crude fell $4.16 to $126.77 on the ICE Futures Exchange.