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OUTAGE AT VENEZUELA OIL REFINERY HELPS DRIVE GAS PRICES TO 3-YEAR HIGH

Gasoline prices reached another three-year high Friday as problems at a Venezuelan oil refinery stoked fears of even tighter supplies.

The power outage at the Punta Cardon refinery turned out to be a minor snag, but traders are jumpy about any threat of reduced output as the summer driving season approaches."The fundamental picture in gasoline looks pretty strong and it continues to put upward pressure on prices," said John Saucer, energy analyst with Smith Barney Inc. in Houston.

Other energy markets were mixed. Among other commodities, soybeans rose on signs of strong demand, and corn futures were mixed. The Commodity Research Bureau's index of 21 commodities slipped 0.16 point to 235.30.

Wholesale unleaded gasoline for May delivery rose 0.37 cent to 65.33 cents a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange Friday, the last trading day for the May contract. It was the highest daily settlement for near-term deliveries since June 23, 1992.

June gasoline rose 0.41 cent to 63.39 cents a gallon. In other energy trading, June light sweet crude oil ended 5 cents lower at $20.38 a barrel; May wholesale heating oil fell 0.31 cent to 50.95 cents a gallon; June natural gas rose 1 cent to $1.662 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Energy prices opened weaker after soaring in a gasoline-led rally Thursday, then chopped around until a late round of buying prompted by the Venezuelan news.

Gasoline prices have risen 11.75 cents, or 22 percent, this year. Mild winter weather made driving easier than usual, and the unexpected demand reduced gas inventories.

Gasoline stocks remain below year ago levels, according to industry and government reports released earlier this week.