Oil continues to slide, natural gas rises 5.6 pct

Investors made the switch from oil to natural gas Wednesday.

Oil prices continued to slide on lingering concerns about economic stability in Europe and a possible slowdown in China's economy. Investors instead bought natural gas, boosting the price more 5.6 percent, the biggest gain in more than two months.

Benchmark oil for December delivery fell $1.90 to $80.44 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, its lower settlement price in a month. The price has fallen $7.23, more than 8 percent, in the last four trading days as global economic issues took center stage.

But natural gas rose 21.2 cents, or 5 percent, to $4.030 per 1,000 cubic feet. Investors were hedging against a sustained drop in oil, and also anticipating a pick-up in demand with winter approaching, said Phil Flynn, an analyst at PFG Best in Chicago. About 60 percent of U.S. homes use natural gas for heat.

The Energy Department issued its second-straight bullish report on oil supplies. Commercial crude oil inventories fell by 7.3 million barrels to 357.6 million barrels for the week ending Nov. 12. Still, oil fell by 2.3 percent.

Just a week ago, a report of a surprise 3.3 million barrel drop in inventories was enough to push oil to a two-year high near $88. But since then, expectations have grown among investors that China government will take action to slow down robust economic growth and head off a bout of inflation. China's voracious appetite for energy has been one of the underpinnings for oil prices.

Investors are also watching Europe, where leaders are working to help Ireland, which is struggling after a collapse in the housing market forced the country to take over three large banks. A financial bailout of Greece earlier this year put pressure on commodities and raised concerns about diminished demand.

Oil prices likely will remain under pressure until there is more clarity on the situations in China and Ireland, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates.

He and Mike Zarembski, a senior commodity analyst at OptionsXpress Inc., both believe the slide is more of a correction than a long-term trend. They say there is still ample demand for energy products in China and other parts of the world.

The Energy Department also reported that U.S. gasoline inventories declined by 2.7 million barrels to 207.7 million barrels while inventories of distillate fuel, which include diesel and heating oil, fell by 1.1 million barrels to 158.8 million barrel.

The drop for both oil and gasoline was larger than expected by analysts, according to a survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos. For distillate fuel, analysts had predicted a drop of 1.8 million barrels. All three products remain at levels higher than the average range for this time of year.

The Energy Department releases supply data for natural gas on Thursday. Flynn says traders are anticipating a lower-than-usual increase.

In other Nymex trading in December contracts, heating oil fell 5.91 cents to $2.2519 a gallon and gasoline slipped 0.22 cent to $2.1579 a gallon.

In London, Brent crude gave $1.45 to $83.28 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.