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Gasoline Futures Advance on U.S. Economic Data, Crude Rally

Gasoline rose the most in three weeks as U.S. economic data boosted optimism that fuel demand will increase and reports of Algerian forces battling al-Qaeda members pushed oil higher.

Futures gained 1.7 percent as Labor Department data show U.S. applications for jobless benefits fell by 37,000 to 335,000 last week, the least since January 2008. U.S. housing starts rose to a 954,000 annual rate in December, the most since June 2008, according to Commerce Department data.

“Those are really, really strong numbers going into the new year,” said Carl Larry, president of Houston-based Oil Outlook & Opinions LLC. “People are thinking strength, strength, strength; demand, demand demand. America is back in the driver’s seat.”

Gasoline for February delivery rose 4.7 cents to settle at $2.7684 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It was the biggest increase since Dec. 26. Volume was 11 percent below the 100-day average.

Demand for the motor fuel rose 3.9 percent to 8.32 million barrels a day, U.S. Energy Information Administration data show. Consumption over the past four weeks was down 0.6 percent from the same period a year earlier.

“The demand numbers haven’t been particularly good in the U.S.,” said Lebow. “Maybe the they’re hoping that looking forward demand picks up.”

February crude oil futures gained 1.3 percent to $95.49 a barrel on the exchange.

Algeria Hostages

As many as half of the hostages in Algeria have been freed, according to the Algerian Press Service report, which didn’t provide a casualty toll. The attackers said yesterday they were holding 41 foreigners abducted from a natural gas complex operated by BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach, while Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said they numbered “a little more than 20.”

Mauritania’s private ANI news agency earlier reported that 35 hostages and 15 abductors were killed in an aerial raid, citing an unidentified spokesman for the group.

“Obviously the market went through a geopolitical upset in North Africa the year before last,” Lebow said. “Not that Algeria will turn into Libya, but any unrest in the region is cause for worry.”

February-delivery heating oil rose 2.21 cents, or 0.7 percent, to settle at $3.0212 a gallon on the Nymex, after climbing as much as 1.2 percent in earlier trading. Volume was 15 percent below the 100-day average.

Gasoline at the pump, averaged nationwide, fell 0.2 cent to $3.292 a gallon, AAA said on its website today. It’s the sixth day in a row the price of fuel for drivers has declined.

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