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Oil rises 1.8% to 8-week high, closing at $48.75 after big drop in US crude stockpiles

  • Oil prices hit eight-week intraday highs in early trading on Tuesday.
  • An industry group reported U.S. crude stockpiles fell by 10.2 million barrels last week.
  • Saudi Arabia's vows to cut oil exports have boosted prices this week.

Oil prices rose to an eight-week high on Wednesday, as a fall in U.S. inventories bolstered expectations that the long-oversupplied market was moving toward balance.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate futures ended Wednesday's session up 86 cents, or 1.8 percent, at $48.75 a barrel. Brent crude futures were up 80 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $51 a barrel by 2:35 p.m. ET (1835 GMT).

U.S. crude stocks fell last week as refineries hiked output and imports dropped, while gasoline stocks decreased and distillate inventories fell, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.

Crude inventories fell 7.2 million barrels in the week ending July 21, more than the expected decrease of 2.6 million barrels. The decline was the fourth consecutive drop, giving support to the market.

Gasoline stocks fell by 1 million barrels, compared with analyst expectations in a Reuters poll for a 614,000-barrel drop. Distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, declined by 1.9 million barrels, versus expectations for a 453,000-barrel drawdown, the EIA data showed.

This added to hopes a long-awaited rebalancing was underway in the oil market. Saudi Arabia said on Monday it would limit oil exports to 6.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in August, down nearly 1 million bpd from a year earlier.

"Today's report has strengthened the bullish sentiment already prevailing in the market, although the longevity of the move remains in doubt," said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energys Global Gas Analytics in London. "Nevertheless, the country's crude and gasoline stockpiles remain above their five-year averages, which will cap price gains."

The drawdown was a combination of higher exports from the United States, marginal decline in oil output and a rise in the refinery utilization rate, he said.

"The market has been tightening and the refinery margins are strong," said PetroMatrix managing director Olivier Jakob, saying the U.S. stock draw offered a boost to prices. "You add geopolitical risk premium for Venezuela, and you've got a strong market."

Venezuela, an OPEC member producing about 2 million bpd of oil, faces deepening economic woes and protests.

President Nicolas Maduro's adversaries plan strikes to push him to abandon a weekend election. The United States is considering financial sanctions to halt dollar payments for the country's oil.

Nigerian output slipped this week as leaks forced Shell to shut a pipeline exporting some 180,000 bpd of oil. Nigeria, which has been exempted from OPEC-led production curbs, also agreed to cap or cut output when it stabilized at 1.8 million bpd.

But analysts said the current oil price rally could encourage more production, particularly from the United States.

"Relieved bulls should be careful what they wish for. Any price rebound will only embolden U.S. shale producers at a time when rumors have started to emerge that the U.S. shale boom is slowing," PVM oil analyst Stephen Brennock said in a note.

On Monday, Anadarko Petroleum said it would cut its 2017 capital budget by $300 million because of depressed oil prices, the first major U.S. oil producer to do so, after posting a larger-than-expected quarterly loss.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.