Oil futures loitered around $100 a barrel Thursday, as traders looked for cues in a weekly report on U.S. unemployment claims and mulled the latest set of inventory data.
Light, sweet crude for June delivery fell 37 cents, or 0.4%, to $99.73 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract was earlier trading as high as $100.79 a barrel.
Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange, which has traded above $100 a barrel since early February, traded down 6 cents to $112.24 a barrel.
Crude futures received an initial bounce following a report from the U.S. Labor Department, which said claims for jobless benefits in the world's largest crude consumer fell more than expected. However, prices later retreated into negative territory and continued to trade in a narrow range.
Initial unemployment claims fell 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 409,000 in the week ended May 14, according to the Labor Department. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires expected claims would fall by 11,000.
"The oil market is kind of torn between fundamentals and the macroeconomic picture," said James Zhang, commodities strategist at Standard Bank in London. "I think it's going to take a few weeks for the market to have a clearer view on what the U.S. economy is doing before making a more decisive move."
Oil market participants have been closely monitoring reports on the pace of the U.S. economic recovery recently, amid concerns that consumers are getting squeezed by high gasoline prices and are cutting back on driving ahead of summer, a period of peak U.S. demand.
Drivers were paying an average of $3.91 for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to the most recent update from AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge report. That's down from $3.98 a gallon a week ago.
Crude futures have traded in a volatile range in recent weeks. Nymex crude has fallen sharply from its recent high of $114.83 a barrel reached in early May. However, it has recovered from a two-and-a-half month low of $94.63 a barrel, a level hit during a commodities-wide selloff earlier in the month.
Despite that selloff, the International Energy Agency warned Thursday that high prices are threatening the global economic recovery. The energy watchdog said there is a "clear, urgent need" for additional oil supplies on the world market.
"Additional increases in prices at this stage of the economic cycle risk derailing the global economic recovery and are neither in the interest of producing nor of consuming countries," the IEA said in a statement.
It added: "We stand ready to work with producers."
On Wednesday, Nymex crude settled above the psychologically important $100-a-barrel mark Wednesday for the first time in a week after a weekly report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed U.S. oil inventories held steady last week. Analysts had expected inventories would climb.
Front-month June reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, recently gained 0.95 cent, or 0.3%, to $2.9650 a gallon. June heating oil fell 0.36 cent, or 0.1%, to $2.9023 a gallon.