Oil Inventory Rise Pushes Crude Down into $61 Range

Oil prices fell on a U.S. inventories report showing an unexpectedly large increase in crude stocks and the first rebound for gasoline inventories in three months.

The increase could relieve pressure on U.S. retail gasoline prices, which have risen to near-record levels ahead of the summer driving season. Inventories remain well below levels a year ago, however, and persistent problems at the nation's refineries and escalating violence in Nigeria's oil region could drive prices still higher.

Marking the first increase in 13 weeks, gasoline stocks rose an average of 400,000 barrels last week to 193.5 million barrels, beating analyst expectations.

Light, sweet crude for June delivery rallied 50 cents in the last 15 minutes of open outcry trading but still settled down 71 cents or 1.1% at $61.55 . June Brent crude also dropped .

Gasoline rose 2.64 cents or 1.2% to settle at $2.2309. Heating oil lost 1.41 cents or 0.8% and settled at $1.8158. Natural gas gained 8.3 cents or 1.1% to $7.720.

Meanwhile, the nationwide average price for regular unleaded was $3.03 a gallon Wednesday, up from $2.78 last month and $2.90 last year, according to AAA's daily survey of self-serve stations.

Unplanned outages and scheduled maintenance at refineries, sluggish imports and strong demand have plagued gasoline supplies. At least a dozen additional partial shutdowns have occurred in the U.S. and internationally that cut refining capacity.

The inventories report also showed crude oil stocks increased by 5.6 million barrels, or 1.7%, to 341.2 million barrels for the week ending May 4.

Stocks of distillate fuel, which includes diesel and heating oil, rose by 1.7 million barrels to 118.8 million barrels.

Earlier today, oil prices rose following the armed seizure of four American workers in Nigeria, heightening supply worries in the energy market.

The attackers, carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed a vessel carrying the workers in the southern Niger Delta minutes before midnight on Tuesday, two industry officials told The Associated Press.

The latest kidnappings -- following dozens last week -- came just hours after militants staged coordinated attacks on three pipelines in the wetlands region, knocking out tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil and keeping global supply fears alive.

Nigeria is Africa's largest producer of crude, one of the top 10 exporters in the world and a leading supplier of oil for the United States.