Oil prices steady below USD 68 a barrel ahead of US fuel stocks data

Oil prices were steady in Asia Wednesday as traders awaited the release of a U.S. government inventory report expected to show increases in supplies of crude, gasoline and distillates.

Light, sweet crude for August delivery lost 6 cents to US$67.71 a barrel in Asian electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, midmorning in Singapore. The contract fell US$1.41 to settle at US$67.77 a barrel Tuesday.

"Prices already factor in the builds. Now traders don't want to move until they see the data," said Koichi Murakami, an analyst with brokerage Daiichi Shohin in Tokyo.

The U.S. Energy Department's weekly petroleum supply snapshot has been watched closely during a spring and early summer in which an unusually high number of refinery outages have led to high oil and gasoline futures prices and record U.S. gasoline pump prices.

The report, due later Wednesday in the U.S., was expected to show that gasoline inventories rose 1.1 million barrels in the week ended June 22, according to a Dow Jones Newswires survey of analysts.

Analysts also predicted that crude oil inventories rose 1 million barrels last week, and that distillate stocks, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, rose 200,000 barrels. Refinery utilization, which fell 1.6 percent last week, was expected to rebound by 0.8 percentage points to 88.4 percent.

The market was little affected by news Tuesday that ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. refused a Venezuelan government offer to keep pumping oil in the country under less profitable terms, analysts said.

The two companies refused to work as junior partners to Venezuela's state-owned oil company. Analysts said their departure from one of the world's largest oil deposits would not cause oil shortages or higher U.S. pump prices since production will likely shift to other companies.

August Brent crude slipped 16 cents to US$70.09 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

July heating oil futures on Nymex fell .08 cent to US$1.9925 a gallon (3.8 liters), and natural gas for July delivery fell 1.7 cents US$6.860 per 1,000 cubic feet.