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Oil below $98 as market awaits crucial U.S. jobs report

A pump jack dwarfs a house northwest of Calgary, in a Sept. 28, 2004 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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A pump jack dwarfs a house northwest of Calgary, in a Sept. 28, 2004 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The price of oil fell slightly Friday as market players readied for the release of a crucial U.S. jobs report.

Benchmark U.S. crude for March delivery was down 16 cents at US$97.68 a barrel at 1:30 a.m. ET in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 46 cents to close at $97.84 a barrel on Thursday, boosted by a positive report on the U.S. labour market and colder temperatures.

Brent crude, used to set prices for international varieties of crude, rose 12 cents at $107.31 a barrel.

"I think the market is waiting for the U.S. non-farm payrolls figure tonight," said Ric Spooner, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney, Australia. He said market players may be "positioning and book squaring prior to the jobs figure."

With chilly temperatures across the middle of the U.S. and into the Northeast, demand for heating oil remains strong. That should boost refinery demand for crude oil.

Spooner said he did not expect a lot of movement in the oil price if the jobs figure is not too far away from expectations or even a bit away, given the cold weather that has kept oil prices steady over recent weeks.

The Labor Department said Thursday the number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits declined 20,000 last week to 331,000, suggesting that Americans are facing fewer layoffs and better job prospects.

In other energy futures trading in New York:

— Wholesale gasoline rose 0.6 cents to $2.689 a gallon.

— Natural gas was down 2.4 cents at $4.955 per 1,000 cubic feet.

— Heating oil price rose 1.1 cents at $3.006 a gallon.

(TSX:ECA, TSX:IMO, TSX:SU, TSX:HSE, NYSE:BP, NYSE:COP, NYSE:XOM, NYSE:CVX, TSX:CNQ, TSX:TLM, TSX:COS.UN, TSX:CVE)

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