Oil prices settled down more than 1 percent on Wednesday after a smaller-than-expected U.S. inventory drawdown and amid jitters ahead of a vote on whether Britain should stay in the European Union.
Crude futures rose early in the day, before the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a stockpile decline of 917,000 barrels for the week ended June 17.
While it was the fifth consecutive weekly draw for crude, the number posted by the EIA was smaller than a 1.7 million-barrel drawdown forecast by analysts in a Reuters poll. It was also about a third of the 5.2 million-barrel drop reported on Tuesday by trade group the American Petroleum Institute (API).
In Tuesday's session, crude prices settled lower but rose in after-hours trade, helped by the huge draw reported by the API.
The positive sentiment extended into early Wednesday, with futures of Brent and U.S. crude's West Texas Intermediate (WTI) both trading above the psychological $50 a barrel level at one point.
Brent crude eventually settled down 74 cents, or 1.5 percent, at $49.88 a barrel, and last traded down 73 cents at $49.89. U.S. crude fell 72 cents, or 1.4 percent, to settle at $49.13. WTI last traded down 73 cents at $49.12.
"Today's report is decidedly bearish, which has caught markets off guard after yesterday's API expectation of a 5 million-barrel crude draw," Troy Vincent, analyst at New York-based crude cargo tracker ClipperData, said, referring to the EIA data.
"Although gasoline demand is still strong relative to year-ago levels, a build to both gasoline and distillate inventories does not bode well for product prices either. With this report, we should expect WTI to move back below $49 this week."
U.S. gasoline demand over past four weeks rose 3.9 percent year-on-year, but stocks of the motor fuel rose 627,000 barrels last week, while distillates grew 151,000 barrels.
Investors also braced for more market swings as the dollar gyrates on speculation over Britain's referendum on the EU on Thursday. The greenback determines demand for dollar-denominated oil among holders other currencies when other fundamental factors are less compelling.
"In any event, our perception of a choppy/sideways trading affair within about a $5-6 range per nearby WTI and Brent remains unchanged," Jim Ritterbusch of Chicago-based oil markets consultancy Ritterbusch & Associates said in a commentary.
"We would steer clear of either long or short positions at current price levels," he wrote, adding that he will reevaluate his stance after the referendum.
In other industry news, top crude exporter Saudi Arabia said it may reprise its role of balancing supply and demand once the global market for oil recovers.