By Sandy Shore
AP Energy Writer
DENVER (AP) — Crude futures for March and beyond sank Tuesday revealing broad pessimism in the markets over energy demand for the foreseeable future.
A limited number of traders took advantage of the February contract which expires Tuesday, the only month that saw prices rise. Crude prices have fallen as the places to store it have thinned, with millions of barrels of unwanted oil now being stored at sea or in facilities on land.
Light, sweet crude for February delivery rose $2.23 to settle at $38.74 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Trading in the final day of the contract was very light, leading to price swings close to $7.
The March contract, where the vast majority of trading took place, fell $1.53 to settle at $40.68.
The phenomenon is what traders call a ‘‘contango,’’ where oil that must delivered in the next few weeks is cheaper than the contracts in the months ahead.
‘‘This is probably the strongest contango we’ve ever had,’’ said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research.
The February contract has fallen about one-third in two weeks because of burgeoning supplies at Cushing, Okla., the delivery point for the Nymex.
That has yet to payoff for motorists, with the cost of retail gasoline continuing to rise. Gas prices have risen for weeks after bottoming out on Dec. 31 at about $1.61 a gallon.
In what may be a maddening turn for consumers, gas costs about 17 cents more per gallon than it did a month ago, though a barrel of oil costs $3.60 less.
Gas prices nudged up again overnight, with crude falling so fast that refined products like gasoline have yet to catch up. Refiners are also taking production off line with Americans driving billions fewer miles than they did last year.
Production cuts by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have yet to create equilibrium in an oil market gripped by recession. Crude prices have been in a tailspin since July.
With storage tight on land, there are an estimated 80 million barrels of oil being held in large tankers offshore, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates.
‘‘We’re filling up every crevice of storage that anybody can find,’’ he said. ‘‘The pipelines are filled up, the terminals are filled up. Refiners are amply supplied. This is a market that definitely has a surplus.’’
If crude at sea has reached 80 million barrels, it could nearly supply the entire globe for a day.
Weighing on all the contracts is a severe recession in developed countries and a slump in global oil demand. Hundreds of U.S. companies report fourth quarter earnings this week and could cement fears that the global economy is worsening.
Schlumberger Ltd., the U.S. oil services giant, leads off the energy sector when it reports earnings Friday. It has already warned of job cuts.
Traders fully expect that the March contract will follow the downward arch of the contract that expires today if there is no morale-boosting economic news soon.
‘‘We need to see enough improvement in demand to absorb some of these excess supplies,’’ Ritterbusch said.
Trader and analyst Stephen Schork said the current gloomy economic indicators in the United States — such as the rising jobless rate and falling industrial production — did not point to a quick recovery.
‘‘Bottom line, we have high supply and low demand. Why should the March Nymex crude oil not trade below $40 ... or 30?’’ Schork wrote in his daily market comment.
Alaron Trading analyst Phil Flynn places more importance on the futures contract for April and the months ahead, noting that many refineries schedule maintenance during the February-March timeframe.
April contracts, he said, are the start of the key summer driving season.
‘‘There’s still a debate as to whether or not demand is going to perk up a little bit or how quickly the economy is going to come back. But right now, if you want oil, there’s plenty of it out there to get.’’
Retail gasoline prices rose .001 cent to $1.843 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. That’s up 17.5 cents from the previous month but still $1.167 below pump prices a year ago.
In London, the March Brent contract fell $1.18 to settle at $43.62 on the ICE Futures exchange.
In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures fell 2.4 cents to settle at $1.1431 a gallon. Heating oil dropped 9.76 cents to settle at $1.3758 a gallon while natural gas for February delivery slid nearly 16 cents to settle at $4.642 per 1,000 cubic feet.
Associated Press writers Alex Kennedy in Singapore and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.