NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- With market observers continuing to look ahead to a highly anticipated statement from the Federal Open Market Committee due in the afternoon, oil prices were struggling Tuesday after China said its trade surplus swelled last month.

The September delivery contract on the Nymex was slumping $1.73 to trade at $79.75 a barrel.

Most morning news accounts were attributing the steep pullback in oil to the downbeat economic data out of China. Imports slowed in July, according to China's customs bureau, suggesting abating economic activity for one of the world's largest consumers of energy.

The Federal Reserve's policy-making group will issue a statement in this afternoon as part of a regularly scheduled one-day meeting. Market observers are curious to know if the Fed will telegraph a willingness to take further quantitative easing steps in order to help stimulate the economy.

Late Tuesday, the industry's own American Petroleum Institute is scheduled to release a crude oil inventory assessment, followed by the Energy Information Administration's own take due out Wednesday morning. According to a survey of analysts conducted by Platts, crude oil stockpiles are expected to fall by 2.4 million barrels for the week ending August 6.

The major stock market averages were also dragged lower by the lagging Chinese figures, as the Dow, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq were each retreating more than 1% in late morning action.

Shares of Exxon Mobil ( XOM) and Chevron ( CVX) were feeding into the broader market sell-off, down 1.2% and 0.8%, respectively.

Delta Petroleum's ( DPTR) revenue surged 73% in the second quarter, according to a morning earnings report. The company narrowed its loss from year-ago levels, though the results were still wider than Wall Street expectations. The stock fell more than 5% to 79 cents in recent trades.

Also on the Nymex, September natural gas futures were adding 3 cents to $4.34 per million British thermal units. The September heating oil contract was off 4 cents to $2.11 a gallon, while the gasoline for September delivery was dipping 3 cents to $2.08 a gallon.

--Written by Sung Moss in New York

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