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Crude Oil Extends Advance

Inventory data and tension with Iran bolster futures contracts.

Updated from 2:03 p.m. EST

Energy prices were higher on Thursday after new inventory numbers for crude oil and natural gas were released by the Energy Information Agency.

Light, sweet crude oil for April delivery finished up 88 cents at $60.95 a barrel. Natural gas closed 1.1% higher at $7.72 per million British thermal units.

Heating oil finished the day 4 cents higher at $1.73 per gallon, and gasoline advanced 3 cents to $1.75 per gallon.

The EIA inventory figures were more bullish than analysts had anticipated. Crude inventories were expected to increase by 700,000 barrels during the week ended Feb. 16, but they actually fell by 416,000 barrels.

Analysts were expecting a draw from distillate inventories of 2.8 million barrels, while 5 million barrels of crude distillates were actually withdrawn from storage.

The energy market was also being affected by refinery fires and gas pipeline leaks in the U.S. and tension surrounding a possible United Nations reaction to Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

The deadline has passed for Tehran to end its atomic development or risk sanctions, and now the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is actually expanding rather than halting its plans.

Joe Palmisano, technical analyst at IDEAGlobal in New York, says that he expects the price of crude oil to trade choppily over the next few days and stay within the $57.50 to $61 range.

"The period from late February through March is a lull period for energy markets," Palmisano says. "I don't see any impetus for breaking out of recent ranges. It won't be until April or May that we'll see more action in the markets."

Energy stocks mostly advanced from their closing positions Wednesday. However, the

iPath Goldman Sachs Crude Oil

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was 10 cents lower at $36.50.

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Ferris Baker Watts upgraded the stock of oil and gas independent

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Oil majors

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Royal Dutch Shell




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finished the day fractionally stronger.