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Oil rises after U.S. fuel stocks draw down; economic concerns loom

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NEW YORK — Oil prices rose nearly 2% on Thursday after posting the biggest two-day loss for the start of a year in three decades with U.S. data showing lower fuel inventories providing support and economic concerns capping gains.

Big declines in the previous two days were driven by worries about a global recession, especially since short-term economic signs in the world’s two biggest oil consumers, the United States and China, looked weak.

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Pushing prices higher on Thursday, U.S. gasoline stocks fell 346,000 barrels last week, the Energy Information Administration said, compared with analysts’ expectations in a Reuters poll for a 486,000-barrel drop.​

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Distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, fell 1.4 million in the week, versus expectations for a 396,000-barrel drop, the EIA data showed.

Still, crude inventories rose more than expected at 1.7 million barrels, compared with analysts’ expectations for a 1.2 million-barrel rise.

Brent crude futures were up $1.31, or 1.7%, to $79.15 a barrel at 11:20 a.m. EST (1620 GMT). U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude was up $1.29, or 1.8%, at $74.13 a barrel.

Both benchmarks’ cumulative declines of more than 9% on Tuesday and Wednesday were the biggest two-day losses at the start of a year since 1991, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.

Supporting prices earlier in the session on Thursday was a statement from top U.S. pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline, which said its Line 3 had been shut for unscheduled maintenance with a restart expected for the products line on Jan. 7.

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Tamas Varga of oil broker PVM said the price rebound early in the session was due to the pipeline shutdown and added: “There is no doubt that the prevailing trend is down; it is a bear market.”

Reflecting near-term bearishness, the nearby contracts of the two benchmarks traded at a discount to the next month, a structure known as contango.

On Wednesday, figures showing U.S. manufacturing contracted further in December pressured prices, as did concerns about economic disruption as COVID-19 works its way through China, which has abruptly dropped strict curbs on travel and activity.

“China’s pandemic and reopening challenges weigh on the market mood and put the bull thesis of a demand rebound under scrutiny,” said Norbert Rücker, analyst at Swiss private bank Julius Baer. (Reporting by Stephanie Kelly; Additional reporting by Alex Lawler and Jeslyn Lerh; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Evans)

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