Oil futures closed above $100 a barrel for the first time in a week Wednesday after a closely watched report showed U.S. inventories held steady last week.
Light, sweet crude for June delivery settled up $3.19, or 3.3%, to $100.10 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the first settlement above the $100 mark since May 10. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange recently traded up $2.16, or 2%, to $112.15 a barrel.
Futures advanced steadily throughout the day after a closely watched report from the Department of Energy said U.S. oil inventories remained flat last week, bucking expectations that supplies would climb.
Other data also painted a rosier-than-expected picture of U.S. supply and demand. Gasoline stockpiles rose less than expected, while gasoline demand rose 222,000 barrels, according to the DOE.
"I think there was some relief that the report wasn't as bearish as advertised," said Andy Lebow, a trader and broker with MF Global in New York. "The market may be trying in a volatile way to consolidate."
Gasoline supplies rose 119,000 barrels last week, while supplies of distillates, including heating oil and diesel, fell 1.2 million barrels, according to the DOE. The refinery utilization rate rose a greater-than-expected 1.5 percentage points, to 83.2% of capacity.
Oil supplies were expected to rise 700,000 barrels last week, according to a survey of analysts by Dow Jones Newswires. Gasoline inventories were seen rising 600,000 barrels, while distillate supplies were expected to rise 500,000 barrels. Refinery utilization was seen rising 0.3 percentage points.
Refined-product futures also climbed on the back of the DOE report. Front-month June reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled up 3.62 cents, or 1.2%, to $2.9555 a gallon. June heating oil settled up 6.08 cents, or 2.1%, to $2.9059 a gallon.
Market participants have been eyeing inventory data in recent weeks for hints about U.S. demand levels ahead of the summer driving season, when petroleum demand in the world's largest consumer usually peaks.
Some reports have suggested that consumers are balking at $4-a-gallon gasoline--a level already reached in many parts of the country--and may be cutting back time on the road. But on Tuesday, SpendingPulse's weekly update on gasoline use said demand rose 2.1% last week, hitting a one-month high.
Meanwhile, gasoline prices at the retail level have retreated from the $4-a-gallon threshold, coinciding with a broad sell-off in crude prices recently. A gallon of regular gasoline averaged $3.93 a gallon Wednesday, down 3 cents from a week ago, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge report.
Although demand is set to climb over the next few months, several analysts have said it's unlikely crude prices will return to their recent highs unless supply levels fall sharply or geopolitical tensions removes production from the market.
"Consumers are still under pressure to economize, to conserve fuel, because the stuff's become expensive," said Tim Evans, energy analyst at Citi Futures Perspective in New York.
Crude on the Nymex has fallen 12% so far in May, retreating sharply from its most recent high of $114.83 a barrel on May 2.
The contract's most recent low was $94.63 a barrel, which was hit amid the deep selloff in commodities earlier this month.