Crude oil prices hovered near unchanged on Wednesday in choppy, thin trading after slumping on data showing rising U.S. crude stockpiles even as Libya and Middle East uncertainty limited losses ahead of the close of first-quarter 2011.
Crude oil inventories rose more than estimates in the week to March 25, and stocks at the Cushing, Oklahoma, delivery point for the U.S. light sweet crude contract jumped to a record high, according to the Energy Information Administration's weekly report.
Rebels in Libya pulled out of the oil town of Ras Lanuf under heavy bombardment from Muammar Gaddafi's forces, showing their weakness without Western air strikes to tip the scales in their favor.
Brent crude futures for May delivery rose 23 cents to $115.39 a barrel by 12:44 p.m. EDT.
U.S. May crude futures dipped 5 cents to $104.74 a barrel, swinging between $103.44 and $105.15.
With the first quarter ending on Thursday, trading volume remained low on Wednesday and brokers and analysts continued to note that the uncertain Libyan and Middle East and Japan scenarios have also helped dampen volume.
Total U.S. crude trading volume at just over 348,000 lots traded, was 56 percent below the 30-day average. Brent trading volume just above 224,000 also was tracking below average.
U.S. crude inventories rose a more-than-expected 2.95 million barrels last week, but gasoline inventories fell 2.7 million barrels, the EIA report said.
Distillate stocks, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, posted a slight gain against expectations of a dip.
The recent drops in gasoline inventories, while reflecting refiners draining winter grade fuel ahead of summer driving season, have been supportive to U.S. gasoline futures and analysts have noted resilient demand despite rising pump prices.
Crude stocks rose more than many people were expecting and while gasoline stocks are drawing due to exports and the switch from winter to summer grade fuel, demand is not strong, Andy Lebow, trader with MF Global in New York, said.
Also providing some support ahead of the oil data, ADP employment data showed the U.S. private sector added 201,000 jobs in March, with the report arriving ahead of Friday's government monthly payrolls report.
While unrest in Yemen, Syria and the fight in Libya keep dangers to supply in focus, analysts continue to point out demand uncertainties with quake-hit Japan and sagging consumer sentiment in the United States and the euro zone debt problems.
OBAMA SEEKS LOWER OIL IMPORTS
Oil prices did not react to President Barack Obama's speech setting an ambitious goal to cut U.S. oil imports by a third over 10 years.
Obama said the country, which relies on imported oil for roughly half of its daily needs, must increase its energy independence to improve national security.
(Additional reporting by Ikuko Kurahone in London and Alejandro Barbajosa in Singapore; Editing by Marguerita Choy)