MARKET WATCH
Energy prices are mixed

Sam Fletcher
Senior Writer

HOUSTON, Dec. 22 -- Energy commodities prices were mixed Dec. 21, with natural gas futures falling for the second consecutive session because of revised forecasts for milder winter weather.

Crude futures prices also dipped and might have fallen further, analysts said, if not for market expectations of a bullish new report of US inventories of crude and petroleum products.

The Energy Information Administration said Dec. 22 that commercial US inventories of crude increased by 2.1 million bbl to 295.9 million bbl during the week ended Dec. 17. That put US crude stocks in the upper half of the average range for this time of year, which may not seem so bullish to some traders. However, EIA said distillate fuel inventories were up by only 600,000 bbl to 119.9 million bbl, still just below the lower end of the average range for this period. US gasoline inventories increased by 1.8 million bbl to 211.4 million bbl, over the top of the average range.

US imports of crude averaged more than 10.5 million b/d in the week ended Dec. 17, up by 179,000 b/d from the previous week. The amount of imports from Mexico and Saudi Arabia were relatively high, said EIA.

However, the input of crude into US refineries decreased by 125,000 b/d to nearly 15.6 million b/d during that same period, with refineries running at 93.4% of capacity. Distillate production set a record for the week, averaging more than 4.2 million b/d with "a significant increase" heating oil production. Gasoline production remained relatively high, averaging nearly 9 million b/d.

Energy prices
Both the January and February contracts for benchmark US light, sweet crudes slipped by 2¢ each to $45.76/bbl and $45.79/bbl, respectively, on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On the US spot market, West Texas Intermediate at Cushing, Okla., was down by 9¢ to $45.56/bbl. The January natural gas contract lost 9.6¢ to $6.86/MMbtu on NYMEX, "undermined by a softer cash [spot gas] market in the face of milder weather forecasts for next week," said analysts at Enerfax Daily. However, gasoline for January delivery jumped by 1.47¢ to $1.17/gal on NYMEX, while heating oil for the same month inched up by 0.06¢ to $1.3994/gal.

In London, the February contract for North Sea Brent crude dipped by 8¢ to $42.37/bbl Feb. 21 on the International Petroleum Exchange.

The average price for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' basket of seven benchmark crudes also lost 8¢, to $38.26/bbl.

Contact Sam Fletcher at samf@ogjonline.com

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