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Oil Up Before Data Release

The March delivery contract added 76 cents, or 1%, to settle at $75.28 a barrel after sliding earlier in the session.
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NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Crude oil prices moved higher recently, but analysts said the trading was highlighted by investor uncertainty as observers await delayed government data revealing last week's supply levels.

The March delivery contract recently added 70 cents to trade at $75.22 a barrel after sliding earlier in the session. Still, the contract touched as low as $73.38 today. It settled near $71 at the end of last week, only to see prices make a comeback over the past few sessions.

The Energy Information Administration delayed its weekly crude inventory report because of blizzardlike conditions in Washington, D.C. Typically released Wednesday morning, the report is now due on Friday at 11 a.m. EST.

Analysts said the lack of fundamental data has given traders a host of other factors to move on today, though the American Petroleum Institute suggested Tuesday that crude supplies rose well more than expected. The industry group said crude oil inventories rose by 7.2 million barrels last week despite forecasts calling for a smaller 2 million-barrel buildup, according to analysts surveyed by Platts.

"There's just a lot of confusion right now," said Stephen Schork, analyst and editor of the energy newsletter

The Schork Report.

"The market lacks direction right now. It doesn't really want to trend in either direction."

"Effectively, this is a market driven primarily by a little bit of an overreach by the bears last week," Schork added. "We're getting some kind of pop back this week. We had a very bearish API report on Tuesday. The market shrugged it off, and we're ready to go into tomorrow to see what the DOE tells us. This weather has thrown everybody off. The normal weekly inventory reports were delayed, so the market is just grasping at things at this point."

Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy, suggested that crude prices have been tracking closely alongside equities.

"It's largely following the S&Ps, which is not really surprising given that they don't really have any new fundamental information to go on," Armstrong said. "We've largely been following equities over the last couple days. The correlation was particularly tight yesterday."

Dollar strength also put pressure on crude prices in the morning, but the greenback pared its gains recently against a basket of currencies. The dollar index advanced 0.3%.

The International Energy Agency raised its 2010 outlook for global oil demand, revising estimates higher by 170,000 barrels per day to 86.5 million barrels per day in its February report. That mark also reflects a 1.8% increase from 2009.

Oil-related stocks moved broadly higher, helping the major averages. The NYSE Arca Oil Index advanced 1.5%, while the Philadelphia Oil Service Sector Index improved 1.4%.

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Late Wednesday, a

Chevron-led

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consortium said it won the rights to develop a piece of the so-called "Orinoco Oil Belt" in Venezuela. The group is expected to hold a 40% interest in the operation, while the state-controlled

Petroleos de Venezuela

will hold 60%. Chevrons shares rose 1.8% today.

Spain's

Repsol

(REP)

, which is leading another consortium to develop a separate block in Venezuela, slipped 0.4%.

Total

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rose 2.2% after the French integrated firm said it beat fourth-quarter profit estimates and offered an upbeat production outlook.

Amid the snowy weather conditions burying much of the East Coast, the March natural gas contract added 4 cents to $5.34 per million British thermal units. March heating oil gained 2 cents to $1.97 a gallon. Gasoline for March delivery also improved marginally to $1.93 a gallon.

--Written by Sung Moss in New York