Oil retreats below $96, gas pump prices keep rising as blizzard slams US Northeast

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Oil prices slipped back below $96 a barrel Friday afternoon, reversing course after rising earlier in the day.

Benchmark crude for March delivery fell 11 cents to finish at $95.72 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It rose as high as $96.57 in the morning.

Oil rose initially after a report showing that China’s trade growth surged in January. Exports soared 25 per cent from a year earlier and import growth rocketed to 28 per cent.

Analysts said the year-on-year data could be distorted because the Lunar New Year holidays fell in January in 2012. Last year companies picked up pace in January to fill orders before shutting down for the holiday, which this year falls in February.

And the Commerce Department said Friday that the U.S. trade deficit fell nearly 21 per cent in December from November, as oil imports plummeted. That’s the smallest trade deficit in nearly three years. The smaller trade gap means the economy probably performed better in the fourth quarter than first estimated last week.

But those gains evaporated in the afternoon.

In London, Brent crude, used to price international varieties of oil, rose $1.66 to end at $118.90 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In other energy futures trading on the Nymex:

— Wholesale gasoline rose 6 cents to finish at $3.06 a gallon.

— Natural gas fell 1 cent to end at $3.27 per 1,000 cubic feet.

— Heating oil gained 4 cents to finish at $3.24 a gallon.