U.S. crude futures edged lower Wednesday, recovering from much steeper losses earlier in the day, in the wake of a mixed report on U.S. oil inventories.
European crude, meanwhile, ended higher after a production halt at a major oil field in the North Sea.
Light, sweet crude for June delivery settled 20 cents, or 0.2%, lower at $96.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Earlier in the session, the contract dropped to as low as $95.17 a barrel, its weakest level since December. But the benchmark gradually recovered as the trading day went on.
Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange, meanwhile, settled 47 cents, or 0.4%, higher at $113.20 a barrel, recovering from a drop to as low as $111.31.
Prices began their recovery after the Department of Energy reported a mixed view of U.S. petroleum inventories. The closely watched survey found U.S. oil inventories rose more than expected last week, though gasoline stockpiles fell sharply and gasoline demand picked up.
"The DOE numbers have been sort of neutral," said Andy Lebow, senior vice president of energy futures at Jefferies Bache in New York. "On the product side, certainly we've had these healthy draws."
Prices pared their losses throughout the session after reports that Nexen Inc.'s Buzzard oil field halted production. Traders said the North Sea field, a key contributor to the key Forties crude stream, had a power malfunction.
Despite the recovery, Wednesday marked the sixth straight session of lower prices for the Nymex benchmark. The contract is down 7.7% so far this month due to a combination of global economic weakness and rising production.
The last time Nymex crude fell six sessions in a row was January 2011.
Earlier this week, Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi said oil prices were too high and hinted that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries could discuss raising its output ceiling at its meeting next month.
Total OPEC crude output rose to 31.26 million barrels a day in April, up 1.3% from a revised March figure, the EIA said Tuesday.
"Inventories have been pretty plentiful, OPEC production's been high, and fears of economic issues, especially out of Europe--guys are being a little more risk-averse," said Peter Donovan, vice president at Vantage Trading in New York.
Oil inventories last week rose 3.7 million barrels, the DOE reported. Analysts had expected a smaller build of 2 million barrels. Oil inventories are now at their highest level since 1990, amid still-weak demand and steadily rising production.
Gasoline inventories, however, fell 2.6 million barrels to their lowest level since November. The EIA's indirect measure of gasoline demand, meanwhile, rose 2%.
Distillate inventories, including heating oil and diesel, dropped 3.3 million barrels last week, compared with an expected drop of just 100,000 barrels.
Front-month June reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 2.97 cents, or 1%, higher at $3.0241 a gallon. June heating oil settled 0.9 cent, or 0.3%, higher at $2.9991 a gallon.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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