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Oil steady above $97 ahead of US Fed decision

Pablo Gorondi, Associated Press

The price of oil was firm above $97 a barrel Wednesday as the market waited to see whether the U.S. Federal Reserve will decide to start to reduce its monetary stimulus.

By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark U.S. crude for January delivery was up 18 cents to $97.40 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Tuesday, the Nymex contract fell 26 cents to close at $97.22 a barrel.

If the Fed decides to reduce part of its stimulus package of $85 billion a month, the dollar could strengthen and make commodities like oil, priced in dollars, more costly for overseas investors. That could push down oil prices.

The Fed's is expected to issue a statement early afternoon in Washington, at the end of its two-day policy meeting. Chairman Ben Bernanke then holds a press conference.

Markets are also waiting for confirmation of data on U.S. stockpiles of crude and refined products.

Figures for the week ending Dec. 12 are expected to show a draw of 4 million barrels in crude oil stocks and a build of 1.4 million barrels in gasoline stocks, according to a survey of analysts by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos.

On Tuesday, the industry-funded American Petroleum Institute said crude stocks fell 2.5 million barrels. The report from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration — the market benchmark — will be out later Wednesday.

In London, the February contract for Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, was up 8 cents to 108.52 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

In other energy futures trading on Nymex:

— Wholesale gasoline was up 1.53 cents at $2.65 a gallon.

— Heating oil added 1.02 cents to $2.9721 a gallon.

— Natural gas rose 1.2 cents to $4.299 per 1,000 cubic feet.