Updated from 1:30 p.m. EST

Crude oil prices closed above $49 Tuesday for the first time since November as traders anticipated the release of U.S. inventory data Wednesday morning.

The March futures contract gained 83 cents at $49.64 a barrel.

Traders yesterday briefly pushed prices above $49 amid heightened demand for heating oil as unseasonably cold weather continued to hug the region, adding to a wintry mix thanks to a foot of snow in parts of the Northeast.

Energy Department data on weekly inventory levels are expected to show an increase in crude oil and gasoline but a decline in distillate products.

The upcoming elections in Iraq at the end of the month also are raising concerns about new sabotage attacks on the oil industry infrastructure there, a factor that helped boost prices during much of 2004.

Traders continue to speculate on the possibility that OPEC members would agree to a second round of production cuts at its Jan. 30 meeting, having trimmed output by 1 million barrels a day as of Jan. 1.

Prices are now about 11% below their record high of some $55 a barrel touched in late October, having fallen close to $40 a barrel at the peak of the correction.