Oil Prices Volatile Prior to Contract Roll

Oil prices turned lower Monday in a volatile session that earlier saw prices climb over $53 as investors juggled their positions on the final day of trading for the February contract.

Light, sweet crude for February delivery fell 55 cents to $51.44 a barrel in afternoon trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The February oil contract is set to expire later Monday.

"The contract roll can actually create some volatility," said Stephen Jones, senior consultant with Purvin & Gertz in Houston. "It can go either direction, because people have taken a position that ends up having to be covered. If they're short they have to buy to meet that obligation, or if they're long they have to sell that length."

A short position is a bet prices will fall, while a long position is a bet that prices will rise.

Crude for March delivery shed 66 cents to $52.74 a barrel on Nymex.

March Brent crude on London's ICE Futures exchange fell $1.09 to $52.35 a barrel.

Over the weekend, snow, sleet and freezing rain hit the East Coast, and winds up to 60 mph piled snow into drifts as high as 3 feet in parts of Colorado, the U.S. National Weather Service said. The blast of freezing temperatures in parts of the U.S., the world's largest heating oil market, helped send prices as high as $53.44 in earlier trading.

Last week, unusually warm weather in the United States and numbers showing growing crude inventories dragged oil prices below $50 a barrel on Thursday for the first time since May 2005.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Department reported the biggest increase in crude inventories in more than four years, which suggests energy prices may have further to fall despite Monday's initial bounce. It said crude oil stockpiles rose by 6.8 million barrels to 321.5 million barrels in the week ended Jan. 12.

U.S. inventory figures showed that gasoline stockpiles rose by 3.5 million barrels and distillates, which include heating oil and diesel, rose by 900,000 barrels.

Heating oil futures were down less than a penny to $1.50 a gallon on the Nymex, while natural gas rose 13.5 cents to $7.021 per 1,000 cubic feet. Gasoline futures slipped about 2 cents to $1.377 a gallon.