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Gas prices fall, but oil nears $76

NEW YORK -- Gasoline prices fell more than a cent overnight, and gas and oil futures closed mixed yesterday as investors tried to decipher a confusing picture of domestic gasoline production.

Oil briefly hit $76 a barrel for the first time in 11 months.

Gas futures stalled a day after they rose 9 cents a gallon on a surprise decline in inventories that didn't square with higher refinery utilization levels and a lingering sentiment that gas prices likely have peaked for the season.

Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates in Galena, Ill., called Wednesday's price jump an overreaction to the inventory data from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration. He expects utilization levels will continue to grow as refineries return shuttered operations to service. That would translate to an inventory build next week.

Gasoline futures for August fell 0.39 cent to settle at $2.1914 on the New York Mercantile Exchange after a volatile session. Prices rose almost 2.5 cents at one point and fell more than 3.5 cents at another.

Meanwhile, the national average price of a gallon of gas fell 1.1 cents overnight to $3.02, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Prices peaked at $3.227 in late May.

Retail gas prices typically lag behind futures prices, which gyrated over the past week. Before Wednesday's rally, gas futures had tumbled more than 25 cents over five sessions on unexpectedly high inventory numbers last week.

Light, sweet crude for August delivery jumped 87 cents to settle at $75.92 a barrel yesterday on the Nymex. Prices briefly touched $76 in a late session rally, but also traded as much as 42 cents lower earlier in the day. A front-month contract last settled over $76 a barrel on Aug. 9.