Energy futures finished mixed in Wednesday's trading session at the New York Mercantile Exchange, but the new oil contract closed in on $60. The May contract for light sweet crude, which assumed the role of the near-term tradable contract after the April contract expired, closed 36 cents higher at $59.61 a barrel. Reformulated gasoline and heating oil were fractionally lower at $1.94 a gallon and $1.66 a gallon, respectively. Natural gas added 25 cents to finish at $7.16 per million British thermal units. The Energy Information Administration reported new inventory figures for the week ended March 16 that caught many analysts by surprise. Crude oil inventories increased by 4 million barrels. Analysts at Bank of America Securities were expecting a 3.1 million barrel rise. Gasoline inventories fell by 3.4 million barrels, as opposed to the 2 million barrel draw expected by analysts. "The gasoline inventory number was very bullish, while the crude oil number was quite bearish," said Dennis Gartman, publisher of The Gartman Letter, in a phone interview. "The two opposing numbers make it difficult to walk away with a clear view of the market." Crude oil's ability to climb on bearish inventory news may be an indication that it has found a technical support level, according to Thomas Hartman, energy analyst at Altavest Worldwide Trading. Crude prices have fallen steadily from a high of $63.28 a barrel since the first week in March.
While gasoline inventory and demand numbers have recently been key drivers for other energy futures markets, geopolitical issues are beginning to loom in the minds of energy traders, Gartman said. In particular is the violence in Nigeria between government troops and rebel insurgents, which is escalating ahead of the presidential election there in late April. "Violence in Nigeria will likely be demonstrably worse a month from now," Gartman said. "That will not be supportive for crude oil supplies." Meanwhile, energy stocks were mostly higher because of the rise in crude oil prices. The iPath Goldman Sachs Crude Oil ( OIL) ETF rose 0.6% to $35.59. Forest Oil ( FST) was downgraded by Matrix Research to hold from buy, but its stock advanced 1% to $32.58. Elsewhere, DCP Midstream ( DPM) and Regency Energy ( RGNC) were both downgraded by Citigroup to hold from buy. DCP fell 2.5%, while Regency lost 1.9%. Methane producer Methanex ( MEOH) was downgraded by BMO Capital Markets to underperform from market perform, and its shares declined 3.4%.