Oil prices fall on disappointing housing report

Oil prices fell Wednesday after a government report showed the housing industry still has a long way to go to recover.

Oil prices fell Wednesday after a government report showed the housing industry still has a long way to go to recover.

Benchmark oil for March delivery lost 50 cents to settle at $91.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

At the gas pump, prices rose again, to a national average of about $3.11 for a gallon of regular, according to AAA, Wright Express and the Oil Price Information Service. That's nearly 13 cents more than a month ago and 37 cents more than a year ago.

The Commerce Department said builders broke ground on 587,600 homes in 2010. That was the second lowest number of homes started since 1959. The worst year was 2009 when only 554,000 homes were started. That compares to about a million new units a year when the economy is healthy.

The data were an indication that Americans are not building new homes as unemployment remains high and credit remains tight for many people.

The housing report disappointed oil traders because they were looking for positive data that would indicate the economy is getting stronger, Tradition Energy analyst Gene McGillian said. A stronger economy will mean more demand for oil and gas.

Oil and natural gas supplies remain plentiful. The Energy Department is scheduled to release its weekly oil inventory report on Thursday, a day later than usual because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday. Analysts surveyed by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos., expect a decline of 2.2 million barrels in crude supplies.

The numbers should reflect last week's temporary closure of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline due to a leak. The line delivers about 13 percent of the nation's daily domestic oil production to tankers for West Coast delivery.

Natural gas prices rose as icy weather blanketed much of the country and forecasters said very cold temperatures may be around into the middle of next month. Natural gas for March delivery added 13.6 cents to settle at $4.561 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Analysts expect the Energy Department to report Thursday that natural gas in underground storage fell last week. The amount of the decline likely will "set the tone in this market for the next several days," energy consultants Cameron Hanover said in a report.

In other Nymex trading in February contracts, heating oil rose 1.03 cents to settle at $2.6562 a gallon, and gasoline gained 0.24 cent to settle at $2.4816 a gallon.

In London, Brent crude rose 36 cents to settle at $98.16 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.


AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

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