Crude-oil futures eased lower Tuesday as uncertainty about the status of a major Canada-U.S. oil pipeline weighed on the market.
Light, sweet crude oil for October delivery settled 39 cents, or 0.5%, lower at $76.80 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude oil on the ICE futures exchange was recently up 11 cents, or 0.1%, at $79.14 a barrel.
Oil prices are being supported at their current level by the continued shutdown of Enbridge Inc.'s (ENB) Line 6a pipeline, which can carry up to 670,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude to U.S. refiners. A long outage could begin to drain bloated U.S. oil inventories, which, when combined with fuel stockpiles, sit at their highest point since the early 1980s.
Futures are still more than $2 a barrel above where they stood before Enbridge announced the shutdown after discovering a leak late Thursday.
On Tuesday, however, futures took a small hit on reports that Enbridge could restart the pipeline without the prior approval of U.S. regulators, potentially resulting in a faster return to service. But the company later told Dow Jones that regulators would need to give the go-ahead for a restart.
"It was a little bit of noise in the market; there were no major shifts," said Tim Evans, an analyst with Citi Futures Perspective, speaking about the pipeline's shifting restart prospects.
The latest U.S. oil and fuel inventory data, for the week ended Sept. 10, are due out Wednesday from the Energy Information Administration. Oil inventories are expected to drop 2.5 million barrels, while gasoline stocks are seen falling 1.1 million barrels, according to a Dow Jones survey of analysts. Distillate stocks, including heating oil and diesel, are seen rising 200,000 barrels, while refinery utilization is expected to decline 0.7 percentage point to 87.5% of capacity.
On Tuesday after settlement, the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, reported a 3.3-million-barrel increase in oil inventories, a one-million-barrel drop in gasoline stocks and a 1.5-million-barrel decline in distillate inventories. Refinery utilization was estimated at 85.6% of capacity.
Oil prices were also under pressure from evidence of sluggish growth in Germany's economy. The ZEW economic research institute cut its closely watched expectations index for Germany's economy to -4.3 in September, from 14.0 in August. The index represents a "flattening" of activity in Germany's economy, Europe's largest.
The index served as a reminder that not all large economies are growing at the rate of China's, where a 13.9% year-on-year jump in August industrial production sent crude-oil futures as high as $78.04 a barrel on Monday.
U.S. retail sales data for August failed to provide a boost, with the 0.4% increase slightly exceeding expectations.
Front-month October reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 1.16 cents, or 0.6%, lower at $1.9690 a gallon. October heating oil settled 0.61 cent, or 0.3%, higher at $2.1288 a gallon.