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US Crude Oil Falls to Settle Below $96

The premium of international benchmark crude Brent to U.S. oil futures jumped to over $23 a barrel on Friday as concerns mounted about stockpiles of crude at the Cushing, Oklahoma, delivery point for the U.S. contract, which pushed prices to settle lower.

The spread traded out as wide as $23.46 a barrel in early afternoon activity in New York, the widest level since Nov. 23, 2012.

Oil inventories at Cushing have hit a string of record highs this year, depressing the price of U.S. crude relative to Brent.

Market players said an IIR Energy report that heavy maintenance at Phillips 66's Wood River, Illinois, refinery was starting in late February, which would further exacerbate the build of Cushing inventories, helped widen the spread on Friday.

Brent crude oil futures rose to a nine-month high close to $119 a barrel on Friday after the release of strong Chinese economic and oil import data, and Brent's premium over U.S. crude oil increased.

Chinese crude oil imports rose to the third highest daily rate on record, and overall exports and imports were much stronger than expected, accelerating signs of a rebound in the world's second biggest oil consumer.

Goldman Sachs, one of the most influential banks in commodity markets, said Brent's rally this year is "less driven by supply shocks and instead by improving demand."

"Global oil demand has surprised to the upside in recent months, consistent with the pick-up in economic activity," the bank's analysts said in a research note, which advised clients to maintain a long position in the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Total Return Index.

Brent crude futures rose on Friday and reached a nine-month peak during the session on supportive Chinese economic and oil import data, while posting a 1.8 percent gain for the week.

Brent March crude rose $1.66, or 1.42 percent, to settle at $118.90 a barrel, having traded from $117.31 to $119.17.

For the week, Brent rose $2.14, or 1.8 percent.

U.S. crude futures edged lower on Friday and posted a 2 percent loss for the week as expectations that crude oil inventories will continue to rise widened the spread between U.S. and Brent crude futures, increasing Brent's premium.

U.S. light, sweet crude fell 11 cents, or 0.11 percent, to settle at $95.72 a barrel, having traded from $95.27 to $96.57.

For the week, U.S. crude fell $2.05, or 2 percent, snapping a string of eight straight weekly gains.

Traders were also watching a powerful blizzard in the northeastern United States that could drop up to three feet (nearly one meter) of snow from Friday to Saturday and bring travel to a halt.

Motorists, mindful of the severe fuel disruptions after Hurricane Sandy, rushed to buy gasoline, leading to some shortages in parts of New York City.

U.S. heating oil futures rose by 5 cents to near $3.25 a gallon in anticipation of the winter storm bearing down on the Northeastern United States.

"We're seeing a big move in heating oil ahead of the storm," said Phil Flynn, analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago. "The distillate (diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel) supply situation may be helped by all the flights being cancelled and gasoline demand may be lower with people staying home," Flynn added.

China's strong January trade data showed a surge in exports and imports that confirmed the rebound in the world's second-biggest economy

China's crude oil imports in January rose 7.4 percent from a year ago to 5.92 million barrels per day, the third highest daily rate on record, official data showed, as refineries ramped up production ahead of the Lunar New Year.

(Read More: China HSBC Services PMI Rises to Four-Month High)

Oil was also supported by tensions in the Middle East and enduring worries about oil supply from the region.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday rejected a U.S. offer for bilateral talks, compounding concern about the most prominent oil market risk factor.

Currently U.S.-Iran contact is limited to talks between Tehran and a so-called P5 1 group of powers on Iran's disputed nuclear program that are to resume on Feb. 26 in Kazakhstan.

Supply concerns were exacerbated when attackers blew up Yemen's main oil export pipeline on Friday, halting the flow of crude, an official working for the state-run Safer oil company said.