Oil falls 2% as U.S. refiners ramp up output, equities retreat

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Pump jacks at the Belridge Oil Field site in California.
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Oil prices reversed course and fell over 2% on Wednesday after government data showed U.S. refiners ramped up output, easing worries of a supply crunch, and as traders took cues from a drop in equities market.

Brent crude was down $2.41 cents, or 2.4%, at $109.52 a barrel, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude fell $2.5 cents, or 2.2%, to $1 09.85 a barrel.

Brent settled below WTI on Tuesday - the first time since May 2020 - and was still unusually trading at a discount due to strong export demand and tightening U.S. crude stockpiles.

U.S. crude inventories fell by 3.4 million barrels last week, government data said, an unexpected drawdown as refiners ramped up output in response to tight product inventories and near-record exports that have forced diesel and gasoline prices to record levels in the United States. [EIA/S]

Capacity use on both the East Coast and Gulf Coast was above 95%, putting those refineries close to their highest possible running rates.

"While on the face of it, the report was extraordinarily bullish, they (refiners) are racing to put more refined product on the market... there's obviously a refiners response," said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital LLC.

Both benchmarks also gave up earlier gains of $2-$3 a barrel following a change in risk sentiment as equity markets fell, said UBS analyst Giovanni Staunovo.

The dollar strengthened and global stocks retreated on Wednesday as concerns about economic growth and rising inflation soured sentiment.

Bearish sentiment also followed reports that the United States is planning to relax sanctions against Venezuela and allow Chevron Corp to negotiate oil licences with state producer PDVSA.

"The perception that we could see some more supply coming Venezuela coming into the market, along with the equity markets, it's causing some profit taking in a much needed technical correction in the crude," Dennis Kissler, senior vice president for trading at BOK Financial said.

The European Union's failure to persuade Hungary to lift its veto on a proposed embargo on Russian oil was adding price pressure, although some diplomats expect agreement on a phased ban at a summit at the end of May.

Ongoing supply concerns, however, were still supportive. Russian crude output in April fell by nearly 9% from the previous month, an internal OPEC+ report showed on Tuesday, as Western sanctions on Moscow curbed exports.

On the demand side, hopes of further lockdown easing in China have boosted expectations of a recovery. Authorities allowed 864 of Shanghai's financial institutions to resume work, sources said on Wednesday, and China has relaxed some COVID test rules for U.S. and other travellers.