Oil Slips to Two-Month Lows as Cars Idle

Crude futures sagged to two-month lows Thursday amid signs that U.S. demand for gasoline may be waning because of high prices at fuel pumps.

Gasoline and heating oil prices fell as well. But analysts suggested that the coming Western hemisphere winter could push prices upward again, with demand for heating oil outstripping supply because of refinery shortfalls and tight imports.

Light, sweet crude for November delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search) fell $1.17 to $61.62 a barrel in electronic trading by afternoon in Europe. The contract slid $1.11 on Wednesday to settle at the lowest level since Aug. 5.

November Brent futures at London's International Petroleum Exchange fell $1.07 to $59.05 a barrel.

Heating oil fell nearly 4 cents to $1.9675 a gallon while gasoline dipped more than 6 cents to $1.8469. Natural gas fell more than 27 cents to $13.908 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The Energy Department (search) said Wednesday that fuel consumption in the past month fell by nearly 3 percent compared with last year. Experts said demand was falling due to high pump prices and an economic slowdown in parts of the United States affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, such as the Gulf Coast states.

"The September numbers confirm the trend that historically high oil prices are now affecting oil consumption," Energyintel analyst John van Schaik said in a research note.

The sell-off came as traders largely ignored weekly data from the U.S. that showed widely expected declines in petroleum inventories.

U.S. crude inventories (search) fell, but by just 300,000 barrels to 305.4 million barrels — still a comfortable 11.5 percent higher than a year ago. U.S. commercial distillate stocks, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, plunged 5.6 million barrels to 128 million barrels last week.

The decline in gasoline stocks of 4.3 million barrels to 195.5 million barrels could also have been greater, if not for an on-week jump in imports of nearly 18 percent.

"However, there does not seem to be a long tail on the import surge, and we expect to see the level fall back in coming weeks," investment bank Barclays Capital said in a note.

Vienna's PVM Oil Associates also warned of possible tightness ahead.

"The loss will not be completely covered by imports, as demand for heating oil in Europe — where most of the ... (imports) came from — will rise in winter, especially when forecast lower-than-normal temperatures actually arrive," PVM said.

Oil is now 10 percent below the Sept. 1 record close of $69.47, while natural gas futures are roughly double year-ago prices.

Meanwhile, reports of refinery recoveries continued to trickle in, with Chevron Corp. (CVX) saying Wednesday it has resumed some production at two large offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. The two platforms were shut ahead of Hurricane Rita last month.