Crude oil prices edged up for a fourth consecutive session on Wednesday, close to their highest levels since mid-2015, ahead of U.S. oil inventory figures and as the market awaits evidence of OPEC supply reductions in the new year.
U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WIT) crude oil prices settled up 16 cents at $54.06 for the best close since July 2, 2015. The intraday peak fell just short of the year's high of $54.51 reached on Dec. 12.
Prices fell after the settle in light of data from industry group the American Petroleum Institute, which showed a surprise build of 4.2 million barrels in U.S. crude inventories.
Five analysts polled ahead of weekly inventory reports from API and the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated, on average, that crude stocks declined by 1.5 million barrels in the week to Dec. 23.
The EIA report has been rescheduled to Thursday at 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT), following the federal holiday on Monday because of the Christmas holiday.
International Brent crude futures crude futures fell 15 cents to $55.94 a barrel by 4:41 p.m. ET (2141 GMT). The international benchmark hit $57.89 on Dec. 12, its highest since July 2015.
Oil prices have gained 25 percent since mid-November, helped by expectations for OPEC's supply cut and solid U.S. economic figures that have also bolstered equity prices.
Trading was thin on Wednesday, with just 189,000 front-month futures contracts changing hands in WTI by 11:07 a.m. ET (1607 GMT), compared with a daily average of 525,000 over the last 200 days. It is expected to remain quiet for the balance of the week.
The market is taking a wait-and-see approach on the official start of the landmark deal reached by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and several non-OPEC members to reduce their output. The deal is set to kick in from Jan. 1.
OPEC and non-OPEC producers are expected to lower production by almost 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd), with Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer, agreeing to bear the lion's share of the cuts.
Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar Ali al-Luaibi said on Wednesday his country, which has seen fast production growth in the past two years, would cut supply by 200,000-210,000 bpd from January.
Luaibi said on a visit to fellow OPEC member Kuwait that he saw oil prices rising to $60 per barrel as the cuts would help ease the global glut of the past three years, according to Kuwait News Agency (KUNA).
"There are mixed expectations of the cuts, trading is thin so the first two weeks of January would be critical to watch," said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at Sydney's CMC Markets.
"If there's any misstep or any indication of disagreement to (the deal), we would see crude prices dropping," he said.
Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh also said on Tuesday he expected OPEC to abide by the deal. "While competing, we do have engagement," Iranian news agency Shana quoted him as saying.
In a sign that the world's oil major producers may abide by their agreement, OPEC member Venezuela said it will cut 95,000 bpd of oil production in the New Year.
Russian oil producer Gazprom Neft said it planned to boost oil output by 4.5 percent to 5 percent next year, less than it had intended before Russia, one of the non-OPEC member countries, joined a deal to reduce a global supply overhang.