Updated from 11:10 a.m. EST

Crude oil prices broke the $54-a-barrel level Thursday, following up on Wednesday's big gain, putting the benchmark U.S. crude less than $1 away from October's record high.

The April futures contract was up $1.35 at $54.40 in Nymex floor trading.

Prices jumped on a quartet of factors. Production outrages at plants in the U.S. joined the current list of short-term supply concerns.

In addition, a decline in weekly U.S. inventories of petroleum distillates -- which include heating oil -- added to recent worries about adequate supply amid unseasonably cold weather in parts of the country. Demand for heating oil is usually a diminishing factor for the market at this time of year.

In addition, lingering questions about whether OPEC will cut production at its March 16 meeting have kept traders anxious. OPEC trimmed output by 1 million barrels a day, effective Jan. 1. The cartel left output unchanged at its most recent meeting.

The 2005 rally in oil prices follows a steep correction in November and December when prices fell some 25% from their October peak of $55.17. Prices exhibited a similar pattern in late summer and early autumn.