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Oil prices steady above USD 63 a barrel as market awaits U.S. weekly supply data

Oil prices were steady above US$63 a barrel in Asian trading Wednesday amid expectations that the weekly U.S. petroleum inventory report will show the 10th straight weekly decline in U.S. gasoline stocks.

Light, sweet crude for May delivery rose 5 cents to US$63.15 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange midday in Singapore.

Traders were refraining from big bets before the inventory data would be released later Wednesday. Gasoline stockpiles are expected to fall by an average of 1.45 million barrels for the week ended April 13, a Dow Jones Newswires survey of analysts showed.

While crude oil stockpiles are seen growing by 500,000 barrels, supplies of distillates, which include heating oil and diesel fuel, are seen falling by 400,000 barrels. Refinery utilization is expected to increase by about 0.4 percent.

Trading also was slow ahead of the May contract's expiration Friday.

"The market is a bit tied up in this front contract," said Tobin Gorey, a commodity strategist at Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Sydney.

"The clock is still ticking on that contract's expiry and that tends to get the market absorbed. It gives it a very short term focus and I think people will be willing to look further ahead once (the May contract) is out of the way," he said.

The May contract fell slightly more than 50 cents Tuesday as gasoline prices slumped to a two-week low after several U.S. refineries started production again following routine spring maintenance.

Part of the hobbled McKee refinery in Texas was restarted - a development that is expected to shore up U.S. gasoline supply and ease a crude glut.

Scattered reports of violence in Nigeria Tuesday had earlier been a concern for traders, but has not been reflected in oil prices.

"It's not an immediate threat to oil supply," Gorey said. "I don't think it's going to be a big influence right now.

Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest exporter and a main supplier to the United States. Nigerians vote Saturday in presidential elections, a week after at least 21 were killed in violence surrounding state elections.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures gained 0.54 cents to US$1.8032 a gallon (3.8 liters) while natural gas prices fell a tad to US$7.415 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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