updated 1/19/2007 1:04:49 PM ET 2007-01-19T18:04:49

While oil companies reaped gargantuan profits in 2006 amid high prices, U.S. demand for petroleum dipped last year to below 2004 levels, a trade group said Friday.

Total U.S. petroleum deliveries, a measure of demand, fell by roughly 1 percent to 20.6 million barrels per day, according to a report by the American Petroleum Institute. That’s down from 20.8 million barrels a day in 2005 and below the 2004 level of 20.7 million barrels a day. The group said the figures are preliminary and may be adjusted.

The analysis was released one day after the Paris-based International Energy Agency estimated that oil demand in the world’s industrialized countries declined by 0.6 percent in 2006. Global demand rose in 2006 due to the strength of consumption in China and the Middle East, but the world’s appetite has grown at a slower pace for two straight years.

“We’ve entered that era on a worldwide basis where demand is growing more slowly,” Citigroup oil analyst Tim Evans said.

“Oil producers may have priced themselves out of some markets,” he added, noting that declining petroleum demand has historically occurred during economic recessions.

Most analysts are forecasting slower economic growth in the U.S. in 2007, in part because of high energy prices but also due to the financial reverberations caused by a slowdown in the housing sector.

In the U.S. — still the world’s largest energy consuming nation — residual fuel oil deliveries experienced the steepest decline, falling nearly 27 percent to 673,000 barrels per day as industrial and electric utility facilities made major shifts to natural gas, the report said. Jet fuel demand declined by 2.8 percent to 1.6 million barrels a day, as airlines conserved fuel as best they could.

The year’s largest increase in demand was for distillate fuel, which includes highway diesel and heating oil. Deliveries of distillate fuel rose 1.3 percent to about 4.2 million barrels per day.

Gasoline demand rose 0.8 percent to average more than 9.2 million barrels per day. The slight bump was met entirely by ethanol blends, which rose by nearly 35 percent, to an estimated 5.4 billion gallons, API said.

“Our figures show modest increases for some products but a decline in overall oil demand,” said Ron Planting, manager, information and analysis, for API. “That decline came as airlines continued to find additional ways to economize on fuel, and as industrial users and electric utilities substituted less expensive natural gas for heavy fuel oil.”

Despite the dip in demand, U.S. refineries and blenders produced record amounts of gasoline and distillate fuel oil in 2006, and many also produced massive quarterly profits.

But there may be a leak at the pump. Since rising to more than $78 per barrel last July, crude oil prices have plummeted in recent weeks, briefly falling below $50 per barrel Thursday. On Friday, oil futures rose 49 cents to $50.97 a barrel in late morning trade on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The mild winter weather in the Northeast and growing energy stockpiles has caused a more than 17 percent drop in oil since the end of 2006, and Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP PLC earlier this month warned that lower prices would dampen fourth-quarter earnings.

The report also showed:

  • Total petroleum imports fell slightly to 13.6 million barrels per day, with a 1.9 percent drop in products partially offset by a 0.5 increase in crude oil imports. Imports accounted for 66 percent of domestic petroleum use for the year.
  • U.S. crude oil production slipped 1.1 percent in 2006 to slightly more than 5.1 million barrels per day because of a 12.1 percent decline in Alaska due to the shutdown of a major pipeline. But output in the lower 48 states saw its first increase in six years, buoyed by the Gulf Coast’s recovery from 2005s hurricanes and new production elsewhere.
  • Oil well completions in 2006 were the highest in 18 years, and natural gas completions reached an all-time high.

Shares of BP added 80 cents to $64.41 in afternoon trading, while Chevron gained 88 cents to $71.80 and ConocoPhillips rose $1.22, or 2 percent, to $63.83, all on the New York Stock Exchange.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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