The price of oil crept up to near $102 a barrel Friday as expectations rose for a solid increase in U.S. employment.
By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark U.S. crude for April delivery was up 40 cents to $101.96 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Thursday, the contract rose 11 cents to close at $101.56.
Brent crude, used to set prices for international varieties of crude, was up 10 cents to $108.20 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London. The U.S. government will release employment figures for February later Friday. Hopes for a strong report — estimates were for a 145,000 gain in jobs — were boosted after the Labor Department said Thursday that the number of people who filed for jobless benefits fell last week to the lowest level in three months.
The unemployment claims report was one of the first bits of good news investors have had on the economy after weeks of data that showed the U.S. recovery slowing because of the severe winter. Meanwhile, tension over Russia's military incursion into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula also underpinned oil prices.
Ukraine lurched toward breakup as lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days. "As news continues to trickle out of the Crimea regarding Russia's actions, investors could take advantage of buying opportunities on the recent dip," said a report from analysts at Sucden Financial Research in London, noting that prices were slowing rising after two sessions which saw the Nymex contract lose a total of $3.47.
The U.S. moved to impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions on opponents of Ukraine's new government and the European Union also announced limited punitive measures against Russia including the suspension of trade and visa talks. Both Washington and the EU said they were discussing further sanctions.
In other energy futures trading on Nymex: — Wholesale gasoline lost 0.15 cent at $2.944 per gallon. — Heating oil added 0.56 cent to $2.9886 per gallon. — Natural gas fell 1.9 cents to $4.643 per 1,000 cubic feet.