U.S. crude stocks fell more than expected in the most recent week due to year-end tax considerations, analysts said, while gasoline and distillate inventories rose, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.
Crude inventories fell by 4.7 million barrels in the week to Dec. 17 to 423.6 million barrels, compared with analysts' expectations in a Reuters poll for a 2.7 million-barrel drop.
U.S. companies that store large quantities of oil draw down inventories in the last weeks of the year to cut their bill for royalty taxes, particularly in the U.S. Gulf.
"A total crude draw of 4.7 million barrels was again driven by a drop on the U.S. Gulf Coast amid stronger refinery runs, while imports were once again subdued due to end-of-year ad valorem tax considerations," said Matt Smith, lead Americas oil analyst at Kpler.
Net U.S. crude imports rose last week by 489,000 barrels per day, the EIA said, as exports also fell.
Gasoline stocks rose more than anticipated, with a build of 5.5 million barrels in the week, compared with expectations for a 467,000 million-barrel rise. Some analysts said the increase was an early signal of weakening demand due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
"Gasoline was a little disappointing on the demand side but if you look at consumer confidence that was telling a different story this morning. Consumer confidence, usually when it rises, gasoline rises with it, so people are looking at this week as maybe a one-off," said Phil Flynn, senior analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago.
The United States released barrels from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which fell to its lowest level since November 2002 with a balance of 596.4 million.
Crude stocks at the Cushing, Oklahoma, delivery hub rose by 1.5 million barrels in the last week, the EIA said.
Refinery crude runs rose by 148,000 barrels per day in the last week and refinery utilization rates fell by 0.2 percentage points to 89.6% of total capacity.
Distillate stockpiles rose 396,000 barrels in the week to 124.2 million barrels.
Oil markets were modestly higher after the report, with U.S. crude futures up 45 cents to $71.57 a barrel as of 11:05 a.m. EST (1605 GMT) and Brent up 32 cents to $74.32 a barrel.