Oil prices rise amid forecasts that U.S. inventory data will show drop in gasoline stocks

Oil prices edged higher in Asian trading Wednesday ahead of U.S. government inventory data expected to show gasoline stocks fell for the fourth week in a row.

"Many traders are sidelining ahead of (U.S.) data due later," said Koichi Murakami, an analyst with brokerage Daiichi Shohin in Tokyo.

Light, sweet crude for April delivery rose 4 cents to US$60.73 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange midmorning in Singapore.

The Brent crude contract for April gained 7 cents to US$61.46 a barrel on London's ICE Futures Exchange.

Data from the U.S. Department of Energy was expected to show a 1.4 million-barrel fall in gasoline stockpiles and 2.3 million-barrel slide in distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, according to a survey of analysts by Dow Jones Newswires. Crude oil stockpiles are expected to build by 2 million barrels.

Kyle Cooper, director of research at IAF advisers in Houston, said traders will also be watching the data for signs that U.S. demand is easing, in light of the recent fall in global equities.

The contract rose 62 cents to settle at US$60.69 a barrel Tuesday as global stock markets recovered and traders bid up oil contracts. Major Asian markets rose for a second day Wednesday.

Also buoying crude prices was a U.S. Energy Information Administration's short-term energy outlook released Tuesday. The EIA predicted that oil demand will be 2.7 percent higher in the first quarter of 2007 than the same period a year ago, and that natural gas demand will surge 11 percent this year from 2006.

The report also said Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries slashed crude output further in February, and that the U.S. retail gasoline price will average US$2.62 a gallon (69 cents a liter) in the second quarter. On Tuesday, the average U.S. pump price for regular gasoline was US$2.49 (65 cents a liter).

Markets are also watching developments in the Middle East over Iran's over failure to comply with demands to halt its uranium enrichment program. Washington is pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions on Tehran and introducing legislation to squeeze Iran by punishing foreign oil companies that invest in its energy industry, the heart of Iran's economy, reports AP.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures rose 0.17 cent to US$1.7490 a gallon (3.8 liters) while natural gas gained 0.1 cent to US$7.473 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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