Energy prices were gaining Friday as cold temperatures in the Northeast sparked buying interest among the bulls. Near-dated contracts for light, sweet crude were adding 89 cents at $55.12 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Natural gas futures were ahead by 25 cents at $7.15 per million British thermal units. Heating oil was up 3 cents at $1.58 a gallon, while gasoline was adding 2 cents at $1.47 a gallon. "Some people think the cold weather will help draw down inventories," explains Max Pyziur, an energy analyst at New York-based specialty consulting firm CPM Group. "Heating oil inventories have been trending above normal ranges," and the need to heat buildings will help them creep lower. Of course, what remains to be seen is whether stores will decline significantly, but a cold weekend for the East Coast is still in the cards. Pyziur remains neutral on the sector and says crude prices will likely trade in a tight range of $52 to $57 for the next two weeks. He notes that the promised cuts by the OPEC cartel don't seem to have materialized. The oil-exporting group has said it would cut production by 1.7 million barrels a day by early February in order to boost prices, but many analysts don't believe the curtailment will be implemented fully.
In the energy patch, the Amex Natural Gas Index was unchanged. Pushing upward were shares of component company XTO Energy ( XTO), higher by 1.4% recently. Meanwhile, shares of Nobel Energy ( NBL), also part of the index, was off 0.8%. Elsewhere, Bear Stearns upped its ratings on Murphy Oil ( MUR) and Hess ( HES) to outperform from peer perform. Murphy was gaining 1.4% recently at about $48, while Hess was adding 2.4%. Lehman Brothers downgraded Southern Company ( SO) to an equal-weight rating from overweight, knocking the stock down 1.3%. The energy exchange-traded funds, U.S. Oil ( USO) and iPath Goldman Sachs Crude Oil ( OIL), were lifting 1.6% and 2%, respectively.