US crude falls 1.2%, settling at $57.30, as OPEC leaves the market guessing over output cuts

Key Points
  • A ministerial committee of oil producers recommended on Wednesday that OPEC and non-OPEC allies extend oil production cuts by nine months.
  • However, doubts over Russia's willingness to extend the cuts through all of 2018 are weighing on prices.
  • U.S. commercial crude inventories dropped by 3.4 million barrels, versus expectations for a 2.3 million barrel draw.
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Oil prices slipped to session lows on Wednesday in a volatile session buffeted by conflicting statements from oil ministers a day ahead of OPEC's meeting in Vienna, as members debate the path for an extension of the group's supply-cut agreement.

The market was less affected by a larger-than-expected 3.4 million-barrel drawdown in U.S. crude inventories, although gasoline and distillate stocks rising more than anticipated weighed.

"The rise in refined product inventories more than offsets the crude oil inventory drop, and there was a notable, if not spectacular, drop in implied gasoline demand on the week," said John Kilduff, partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital LLC in New York.

U.S. light crude ended Wednesday's session down 69 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $57.30 a barrel. Brent crude futures were down 53 cents, or 0.8 percent, at $63.08 a barrel by 2:30 p.m. ET (1930 GMT).

The oil market has pulled back over the last two days on concerns that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and key non-members like Russia, might consider only a short-term extension to its current deal cutting supply by 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) till March.

CNBC OPEC survey: 81 percent expect output cut extension

Crude futures hit a session high after Kuwait's Oil Minister Essam al-Marzouq said a key monitoring committee recommended extending the group's supply-cut agreement through the end of 2018, but those sentiments were undercut by statements from Russia's oil minister, who suggested the oil market still has yet to balance.

"The market is not yet balanced and requires a continuation of common actions," Novak told reporters. "And everyone recommended that after April 1 the agreement may be extended."

The cartel is still weighing the offsetting factor of rising U.S. production, and considering a clause that would allow the group to review a potential extension at its spring 2018 meeting in May or June.

"There is growing anticipation of the output-cut agreement being extended for the rest of 2018; however, possibility for a review clause will be closely looked at," said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energys Global Gas Analytics in London.

Reluctance to agree a lengthy extension has been driven mainly by Russia and its concerns that a major extension could lead the market to overheat.

Moscow fears a strong price rally off the back of such a move could give an unsustainable boost to the ruble, one that harms Russian exports.

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Some Russian producers including Rosneft, run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, Igor Sechin, have questioned the rationale of prolonging the cuts, saying it will lead to a loss of market share to U.S. producers, which are not reducing output.

U.S. production has been hitting records on a weekly basis in recent months, and for the week to Nov. 24, production rose to 9.68 million bpd. That is still short of the 10 million-plus bpd record set in the early 1970s, per monthly data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The drawdown in U.S. crude was driven by the shutdown of the Keystone pipeline, which cut inventories at the Cushing, Oklahoma oil hub by 2.9 million barrels, the largest weekly drawdown in eight years. The 590,000-bpd line was restarted on Tuesday.

The steady rise in production may continue to boost U.S. exports, which will compete with OPEC's market share around the world.

Overall net imports into the United States fell to 5.9 million bpd in the most recent week, down from 7.1 million bpd at this time a year ago.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.