By PABLO GORONDIOil prices hovered near $98 a barrel Thursday, close to four-month highs, as traders waited for more economic indicators from the U.S. By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark oil for March delivery was down 29 cents to $97.65 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 37 cents to finish at $97.94 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Wednesday. The U.S. economy unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, which turned stock markets lower after a January rally that pushed the Dow Jones industrial average to near-record highs. "Crude oil prices are on a consolidation mode Thursday with (Nymex) crude oil posting small losses due to some profit taking following the weak U.S. GDP figures that hurt market sentiment," said a report from Sucden Financial Research in London. Meanwhile, increasing imports pushed U.S. crude oil supplies up by 5.9 million barrels last week, more than twice what analysts expected, the government said Wednesday. Ample supplies have been a major factor in keeping oil prices from spiking, although prices have risen $6 per barrel since the start of the year. Still, oil hasn't seen the $100-per-barrel level since early May. Weekly jobless claims will be released later in the day in Washington. Traders were also awaiting the release Friday of employment data and manufacturing for January, hoping to see signs of an improving U.S. economy. An airstrike launched Wednesday by Israel inside Syria was not seen increasing the geopolitical risk premium on oil prices. "We would tend toward seeing this remaining an isolated act as we believe that any type of larger scale intervention in Syria would be part of a concerted international effort," said analysts at JBC Energy in Vienna. Brent crude, used to price international varieties of oil, fell 10 cents to $114.80 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.
In other energy futures trading on Nymex:â¿¿ Wholesale gasoline lost 0.59 cent to $3.0273 per gallon. â¿¿ Natural gas added 1 cent to $3.345 per 1,000 cubic feet. â¿¿ Heating oil was down 0.34 cent at $3.1053 a gallon. ___ Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed to this story.