Oil Rises 2% as Supplies Seen Tightening

Oil prices rose more than 2 percent on Wednesday as U.S. crude inventories grew less than expected, supply disruptions continued in Libya and the OPEC-led output cut by producing countries looked likely to be extended.

U.S. crude futures surged to nearly a two-week high after the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that crude inventories rose 867,000 barrels last week, nearly half the build expected, as refineries ramped up processing after seasonal maintenance and as imports dropped and exports rose.

And analysts expect further drops in coming weeks.

"Time is beginning to run out for further large crude inventory builds before the usual second-half of April start of seasonal crude draws," Standard Chartered said in a note.

"We expect runs to increase by a further 1 million barrels per day until they reach a seasonal peak in July or August, providing strong downward pressure on crude inventories."

U.S. refinery crude runs rose 425,000 barrels per day as utilization rates jumped 1.9 percentage points to 89.3 percent of capacity, the EIA data showed.

Brent crude futures settled $1.09, or 2.1 percent, higher at $52.42 a barrel after hitting a session high of $52.46, the highest since March 16.

U.S. crude West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures ended up $1.14 cents, or 2.4 percent, at $49.51 a barrel after peaking on the data at $49.54, also the highest since March 16.

U.S. gasoline futures surged as much as 2.4 percent to the highest in three weeks after EIA data showed a 3.7 million-barrel drop in gasoline stocks last week, nearly 2 million barrels more than forecast.

"The WTI crude bulls are emboldened by the double whammy of another large increase in refinery utilization rates and a big jump in crude oil export levels," said David Thompson, executive vice-president at Powerhouse, a commodities-focused broker in Washington.

U.S. crude exports nearly doubled last week to climb to over 1 million bpd, EIA data showed.

U.S. crude exports surged 12 percent in 2016 to 520,000 barrels per day and China became the third-biggest overseas destination for U.S. crude last year, according to EIA data, up from ninth the previous year.

Still supporting prices was Tuesday's declaration of force majeure by Libya's National Oil Corp after production from the western Libyan fields of Sharara and Wafa was blocked by armed protesters, reducing output by some 250,000 bpd.

OPEC member Libya, whose oil sector suffered from the unrest that followed the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, was excluded from output cuts agreed last year.

On Tuesday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other major producers were likely to extend their six-month agreement to cut output beyond June.

A Reuters survey indicates output from all 13 OPEC members fell 230,000 bpd in March from February's revised level and indicated members subject to the deal achieved 95 percent compliance.

However, in the United States, shale oil drillers have seized the opportunity to ramp up output and exports.

"What OPEC has done has improved supply demand balance - there's no doubt about that," said Mark Watkins, regional investment manager at U.S. Bank Private Client Group.

"The one wild card in here is that if North American shale producers are the benefactor of OPEC cuts, it makes it much harder to swallow, where you have competitors benefitting at your cost - that's a big issue."

UBS oil analyst Giovanni Staunovo said in a note he expects Brent to exceed $60 over three months before leveling off in six months to $60 and then retreating to $57 a barrel in 12 months, spurred by rising U.S. shale production and higher OPEC output. (Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York, Ahmad Ghaddar in London, Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio)