Bear market intensifies for crude; prices tumble

NEW YORK (AP) -- Oil prices flirted with five-year lows Thursday as unemployment benefit claims rose and OPEC cut demand expectations for 2009.

Any belief that energy prices had bottomed out were wiped away early in the day as crude plumbed new lows for the year and more government data suggested the economy may be worsening.

"The bull oil era is officially over," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery fell more than percent, or $2.78, to $34.50 a barrel Thursday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. At one point prices fell as low as $33.20.

Crude prices have fallen so fast, the cost for retail gasoline has yet to catch up. Pump prices nudged up again overnight, but is likely to fall.

An oil industry report Thursday showed just how much energy use eroded over the past year.

For all of 2008, U.S. petroleum deliveries - a measure of demand - fell 6 percent to 19.4 million barrels a day, with declines for all major products made from crude, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

That trend appears to be ongoing this year, with millions now out of work and bad jobs data continuing to roll in.

The Labor Department reported first-time requests for unemployment insurance jumped to a seasonally adjusted 524,000 in the week ending Jan. 10. Analysts had expected 500,000 new claims.

An analyst with the Labor Department said the increase is partly due to a flood of requests from newly laid off people who delayed filing claims over the holidays.

"It was very predictable that January was going to be ugly, but I'm not sure if anyone thought it would be this ugly," said Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service.

Kloza said trucking companies have seen a huge drop in business as orders dry up, just one example of how demand for energy has fallen away.

There is so much crude building up in storage tanks, prices are falling because there are fewer places to put it.

Flynn said crude prices should jump as trading moves to the higher March contract because that crude does not have to be delivered for more than a month.

Yet even that spike would be short lived.

"We need something showing that people are being active again, that the job losses have stopped," Flynn said. "It's all well and good to give money to the auto industry, but if we don't sell cars, it doesn't help."

OPEC lowered its energy demand forecast for 2009, with investors already shrugging off production cuts of 4.2 million barrels a day by member countries. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries said in its January report that it expects world demand for crude will fall 180,000 barrels per day in 2009, compared with the previous year.

Sustained job losses, bankruptcies and massive government bailouts have drowned out news of supply cuts that just six months ago would have sent crude prices soaring.

"I don't think there's anything they can say at this point," said analyst Stephen Schork, who doesn't expect a sustained rally in oil prices during the first half of this year.

"They didn't have control of oil prices when it was on the way up," he said. "They don't have control of it when it's on the way down."

On Thursday, the government reported that the draw on natural gas inventories was less than expected, suggesting that industry is pulling back production sharply.

Meanwhile, U.S. oil inventories have been rising for months, an indicator that the recession severely cut into energy demand. The Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that crude inventories grew by 1.2 million barrels for the week ended Friday after jumping 6.7 million barrels the previous week.

According to the EIA, gasoline inventories rose by 2.1 million barrels and distillates increased by 6.4 million barrels.

Prices at the pump rose overnight from $1.792 to $1.7999 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. A gallon of gasoline one year ago cost $3.05.

Refineries are cutting back production because profit margins are next to nil.

Flynn said any existing storage facilities could be flooded with crude as the February contract comes to a close Tuesday, leaving little excess capacity.

"We're running out of places to put it," he said. "There's more oil out there now than we've had in a long time."

Investors were also dismayed by bad retail numbers. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that retail sales dropped 2.7 percent last month, more than double the 1.2 percent decline that analysts expected.

In London, the February Brent crude contract fell 96 cents to $44.12 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures fell 5.7 cents to $1.1108 a gallon. Heating oil fell 2.76 cents to $1.4355 a gallon while natural gas for February delivery fell 18.9 cents to $4.781 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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Associated Press writers Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.

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