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updated: 2/1/2013 7:29 AM

Oil prices barely budge ahead of U.S. jobs report

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Associated Press

The price of oil was nearly unchanged Friday as weak growth in China's manufacturing failed to impress and more people filed for unemployment benefits in the U.S.

Benchmark oil for March delivery was up 3 cents to $97.52 per barrel at midday Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 45 cents to close at $97.49 a barrel on the Nymex on Thursday.

The government said Thursday the number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose sharply last week. Traders will get a further indication about the strength of the jobs market Friday, when the Labor Department issues the closely followed monthly nonfarm payrolls report.

High unemployment drags on the U.S. economy, leading to lower demand for crude and falling energy prices.

"If non-farm payrolls increased in January by more than December's 155,000 gain, it seems likely that oil prices will strengthen in response," said Caroline Bain, commodities analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit.

She said that significant or permanent price hikes are not expected because the market is well supplied and U.S. stockpiles are high.

Brent crude, used to price international varieties of oil, rose 30 cents to $115.85 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on Nymex:

-- Wholesale gasoline lost 0.3 cent to $3.029 per gallon.

-- Natural gas fell 2.9 cents to $3.31 per 1,000 cubic feet.

-- Heating oil rose 0.5 cent to $3.124 a gallon.

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