Oil Futures End Near Flat After Larger-Than-Expected Supply Build

By Nicole FriedmanDow Jones Newswires

NEW YORK--Crude-oil prices fell from a six-week intraday high to end near flat Wednesday after government data showed the biggest one-week increase in U.S. crude-oil supplies in 13 years.

Light, sweet crude for May delivery settled up a penny at $103.76 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down from an overnight high of $104.99 a barrel. Brent crude on ICE Futures Europe rose 24 cents, or 0.2%, at $109.60 a barrel, a six-week high.

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Crude-oil stockpiles rose by 10 million barrels last week to 394.1 million barrels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Wednesday. Analysts had expected stocks to rise by 1.5 million barrels on the week, according to a Wall Street Journal survey.

The increase, the biggest one-week gain in crude stocks since March 2001, highlighted concerns that booming U.S. production of light crude is overwhelming refineries' capacity to process it.

"We're sitting on a lot of crude oil, but it's not necessarily the right crude oil," said Stephen Schork, editor of energy trade publication The Schork Report.

U.S. production of crude oil has surged in recent years, as new technologies have enabled producers to access supplies trapped in shale-oil fields. But many refineries are designed to process heavier grades of crude, which have to be imported, and the U.S. currently can't export most of its crude oil. Stockpiles rose last week even as refineries lifted their utilization rates.

A new pipeline connecting a storage hub in Oklahoma to refineries on the Gulf Coast has allowed crude oil that was stuck in storage to move south, but demand for that oil has been tepid. Supplies in Cushing, Okla., fell to their lowest level since 2009 last week, the EIA said, while storage levels in the Gulf Coast hit an all-time high on data going back to 1990.

Domestic oil production and imports increased week-over-week. The biggest gain in imports was to the West Coast, which also saw a significant supply build. Due to limited pipeline and rail capacity, the West Coast oil market is largely disconnected from the rest of the U.S. and often has little impact on benchmark U.S. futures, which are priced in Cushing.

To be sure, refineries ran at just 88.8% of capacity last week due to seasonal maintenance. Utilization typically rises in the late spring as refineries produce gasoline ahead of the summer driving season.

Brent oil, the international benchmark, was buoyed by geopolitical concerns that ongoing unrest in Ukraine could prompt the West to tighten sanctions on Russia, the world's second-largest oil exporter.

The Nymex trading floor will be closed in observance of Good Friday. U.S. traders are hesitant to bet on lower prices ahead of the three-day weekend, in case the crisis in Ukraine worsens, said Rich Ilczyszyn, chief market strategist with iiTrader, a Chicago-based futures brokerage.

Front-month May reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled down 0.1% at $3.0405 a gallon. May diesel rose 0.8% to $3.0106 a gallon.