Gasoline futures prices tumbled 4.2% Wednesday to a one-month low, a hopeful sign for drivers, after data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration offered an improving outlook for domestic fuel supplies.
Government data released Wednesday showed that refineries are returning to their work of churning out fuel after a period of maintenance work, raising oil processing by 335,000 barrels a day last week. The increasing activity helped push gasoline stockpiles higher in the key Northeast region, where refinery shutdowns over the past year have raised concerns about shortages.
Hit by Hurricane Sandy, gasoline stocks in the Northeast had dropped to as much as 19.3% below year-earlier levels at the end of November, sending futures higher and raising prices at the pump. Now, they are bouncing back. Gasoline stocks in the region are at the highest level since last March and have gained 35% since mid-December.
Gasoline futures have fallen over 7% this week and the surge in retail prices over the past month is slowing, which has some analysts expecting lower prices for drivers. Retail U.S. gasoline prices averaged $3.786 a gallon Wednesday, according to AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Report, up just 0.4 cent from Tuesday. A month ago, gasoline averaged $3.349 a gallon.
"The product is now getting to the market," said Stephen Schork, head of energy-consultancy Schork Group. "Prices at the retail level should start to moderate."
March-delivery reformulated-blendstock for oxygenate blending, or RBOB, futures fell 12.51 cents to settle at $2.8565 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange in the largest one-day percentage decline since December, 2011.
March-delivery gasoline meets the winter-grade fuel standard, while April gasoline must meet a cleaner-burning summer-grade standard. Gasoline futures for April delivery settled 2.9% lower Wednesday at $3.1063 a gallon.
Crude-oil futures finished with slight gains, settling 13 cents higher at $92.76 a barrel on the Nymex. ICE Brent crude futures settled 84 cents, or 0.8%, lower at $111.99 a barrel.
The EIA reported crude-oil stocks rose last week by 1.13 million barrels, less than an anticipated rise of 2.5 million barrels. And increasing refinery operations could signal rising demand for crude to turn into gasoline and other fuels. Still, stocks at 377.5 million barrels are the highest since last July and are the most on record for this time of year since EIA data began in 1982.
The sharp increase in gasoline futures over the past month also contributed to this week's steep decline, according to market watchers. Indications of strong regional supplies just ahead of Thursday's expiration of the March gasoline-futures contract helped spurred the dramatic skid.
"We're seeing more pullback after huge advances," said Kyle Cooper, managing partner at IAF Advisors in Houston.
March heating-oil futures settled 4.38 cents, or 1.4%, lower at $2.9879 a gallon.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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