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Brent crude oil rises toward $70, hitting 3-year high despite signs of overheated market

  • Oil prices hit new three-year highs despite signs that a 13-percent rally since early December may have run its course.
  • Oil markets have so far been generally supported by a production cut led by OPEC and Russia.
  • Despite this, more bearish signals are appearing.
An oil pump jack in the oil town of Gonzales, Texas.
Getty Images
An oil pump jack in the oil town of Gonzales, Texas.

Oil prices hit their highest levels in more than three years on Thursday despite warnings that a 13-percent rally since early December was close to running its course.

Brent crude futures rose 44 cents to $69.64 a barrel by 10:12 a.m. ET (1512 GMT). The contract earlier hit $69.88, its highest since December 4, 2014, the last time Brent was above $70 a barrel.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were up 87 cents, or 1.4 percent, at $64.44. They topped out at $64.77, a high going back to December 8, 2014.

Sentiment was boosted by a surprise drop in U.S. production and lower U.S. crude inventories in official data on Wednesday.

"The undeniable fact is that (U.S.) crude oil inventories are at their lowest level since August 2015," said PVM Oil Associates analyst Tamas Varga. "OPEC is edging ever closer to its desired target of reducing OECD industrial stocks to the five-year average."

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on Wednesday showed that crude inventories fell by almost 5 million barrels to 419.5 million barrels in the week to Jan. 5.

U.S. production also fell by 290,000 barrels per day to 9.5 million bpd, the EIA said, despite expectations of output breaking through 10 million bpd.

The drop, likely to be because of extreme cold weather that halted some onshore output in North America, was expected to be shortlived.

But on Thursday UAE oil minister and current OPEC President Suhail al-Mazrouei said he expects the market to balance in 2018 and that the producer group is committed to its supply reduction pact until the end of this year.

Production cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia, which started in January last year and are set to continue throughout 2018, have underpinned prices.

Still, downward pressure emerged in the physical market, where OPEC's second and third-largest producers, Iran and Iraq, this week cut their prices to remain competitive.

Fuel inventories in Asia and the United States remain ample and in some cases are rising.

U.S. gasoline stocks climbed by a bigger than expected 4.1 million barrels, EIA data showed.

In Asia's Singapore oil trading hub, average refinery profit margins have fallen below $6 a barrel, their lowest seasonal level in five years.

"Markets are getting a bit fatigued and a healthy correction could be on the cards," said Stephen Innes, head of trading for Asia/Pacific at futures brokerage Oanda in Singapore.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.