Dow Jones News Service

Dow Jones/AP

NEW YORK (Dow Jones/AP) -- Crude oil futures fell Thursday,as bearish weekly inventory data andhopes for a fullresumption of Venezuelan oil output reassured jittery traders.

On the NewYork Mercantile Exchange,front-month Marchcrude ended down 60 cents at $32.25 a barrel.

"It was a combinationoftwo things,"said PhilFlynn,an analystatAlaronTradingCorp.,referringtoThursday's decline in prices. "No. 1, we didn't set a new all-time lowin crudeinventories. No.2,75percentto80percent of Venezuelan oil workers are back at their jobs."

February heating oil rose 0.34 centto close at 91.53 centsa gallon, while February gasoline slipped 0.12 cent to settleat 89.81 cents a gallon.

OnLondon'sInternationalPetroleumExchange,MarchBrent settled with a loss of 62 cents at $29.72 a barrel.

Natural gas for Februaryfell 21.5 centsto settle at$5.458 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Crude futures dipped early inthe session after data fromthe Department ofEnergyandtheAmericanPetroleumInstitute showed a surprise build in U.S. crude oil inventories.

In the weekended Jan. 17,crude stocks roseby 1.5million barrelsto273.8millionbarrelslastweekas refinery utilization declined and imports rose by 256,000 barrels aday to 8.745 million daily barrels, the EIA reported.

The API report largely confirmed those figures, showing a build of 181,000barrels incrudestocks anda surgeof548,000 barrels a day in imports.

"The key to this whole thingis run cuts," said BillO'Grady, an analyst at A.G. Edwardsin St. Louis. "You've gotrefinery maintenance clearly underway. That reducesdemand forcrude oil."

Refiners have also been cutting back on operations inresponse to ashortage ofVenezuelancrude oil,a concernthathas helped send crude futures soaring.

While there were no signs that the strike in Venezuela, nowin its eighth week, is aboutto end, news reports suggestedthat the governmentofPresidentHugoChavezismakingmodest progress in restoring oil operations.

Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PdVSA,the state oilmonopoly, said Thursday that about 80percent of its hourly workersand half its administrative staff have returned to work.

The news helped send crude prices sharply lower.

Striking oil workers disputed the claim.

PdVSA's commentscomeafter afirstcrack appearedinthe strike after tanker pilots earlier this week ended their strike at Lake Maracaibo, paving the way for an increase in imports.

Meanwhile, AbdullahbinHamad al-Attiyah,presidentofthe Organization of Petroleum ExportingCountries, said thegroup is trying to "stabilize" the oil market.

"We don't want to see the world with a shortage of oil," al-Attiyah said in Davos, Switzerland.