NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Crude oil settled above $82 a barrel Wednesday, as better-than-expected weekly inventory data and promising overseas reports pointed to improving demand prospects. In its weekly inventory assessment, the Energy Information Administration said crude stockpiles rose 1.4 million barrels for the week ending March 5. Though a rise, the buildup still managed to land under estimates calling for a 2.1 million-barrel jump, according to a survey of analysts from Platts. The market was jittery after a late Tuesday report from the American Petroleum Institute hinted at a decidedly higher build, estimating a 6.5 million-barrel increase. Even more telling Wednesday, the government highlighted sharp declines among fuel inventories. Gasoline stocks dropped by 2.9 million barrels last week, though analysts expected a 338,000-barrel decline. The report also said 2.2 million barrels were withdrawn from distillate stockpiles, which again surpassed the anticipated 950,000-barrel drawdown. Crude oil futures surged in the wake of the report, pushing past $83 a barrel. The April delivery contract settled the session up by 60 cents, or 0.7%, at $82.09 a barrel. The heating oil contract for April delivery added nearly 3 cents, or 1.3%, to settle at $2.12 a gallon and the April gasoline delivery contract also gained nearly 3 cents, or 1.1%, to settle at $2.26 a gallon. "Distillate appears to remain the most bearish element of the complex, although the surplus against the five-year average is being slowly deteriorated," said Jeff Mower, editor in chief of the Platts Oilgram Price Report, in his review of the EIA's inventory data. Elsewhere, global demand figures helped support higher energy prices. In its March report, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries boosted its 2010 oil outlook, now believing demand will grow by 900,000 barrels a day, or 100,000 more barrels a day than in its last estimate. Investors also digested promising trade statistics reflecting stronger fuel demand from China. The world's second biggest consumer of oil said crude imports rose 4.83 million barrels per day in February. Oil stocks turned decidedly higher after the EIA figures, as the NYSE Arca Oil index rose 0.9% and the Philadelphia Oil Service Sector index gained 0.7%.
Shares rose across the oil sector. Exxon Mobil ( XOM) was among the Dow's top-performing stocks, adding 44 cents, or 0.7% to $67.22. ConocoPhillips ( COP) rose 1.2% to $51.47, and Hess ( HES) increased 1.3%, to $61.27. Marathon Oil ( MRO) advanced by 61 cents, or 2%, to $31.49. The notable exception was Chevron ( CVX), which was one of the Dow's biggest laggards. Shares took a hit after they were
downgraded at Bank of America Merrill Lynch to neutral from buy. On Tuesday, the integrated oil conglomerate announced plans to lay off 2,000 workers and sell some refining operations. The stock shed 34 cents, or 0.5%, to $73.96. On Thursday morning, the Energy Information Administration releases weekly natural gas storage data for the week ended March 5. Analysts polled by Platts are looking for a withdrawal between 108 billion to 112 billion cubic feet. Shares of natural gas producers had a mixed session. Southwestern Energy ( SWN) shot up 2.4%, and Devon Energy ( DVN) rose 1.4%, while shares of Chesapeake Energy ( CHK) and Gastar Exploration ( GST) ticked lower, by 0.4% and 0.5%, respectively. Natural gas for April delivery added 4 cents, or 1%, to settle the session at $4.56 per million British thermal units. --Written by Sung Moss and Melinda Peer in New York.