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U.S. crude stockpiles plunge as refining activity picks up: EIA

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(Reuters) – U.S. crude oil stocks plunged unexpectedly last week, tumbling by more than 6 million barrels, as refiners ramped up production rates to pre-pandemic levels in March amid rising fuel demand, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.

Crude inventories fell by 6.6 million barrels in the week to Feb. 5 to 469 million barrels, compared with expectations in a Reuters poll for a 985,000-barrel rise.

Refinery utilization rates rose by 0.7 percentage point in the week to 83%, the highest level of refining utilization since March.

Refinery crude runs rose by 152,000 barrels per day in the last week, the EIA said, as refiners expect fuel demand to continue to rebound from last year’s coronavirus-induced weakness.

Fuel demand was also higher, with refined product supplied rising to 20.2 million bpd. Gasoline demand over the last four weeks, however, is still 10% lower than at the same time a year ago.

Crude prices were little changed after the data, with U.S. futures up six cents to $58.43 a barrel as of 10:49 a.m. EST (1549 GMT), while Brent rose 19 cents to $61.28 a barrel.

“A combination of higher refining activity and lower imports resulted in a fourth consecutive draw to oil inventories, and a chunky one at that,” said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData.

Net U.S. crude imports rose last week by 216,000 bpd, EIA said.

U.S. gasoline stocks rose by 4.3 million barrels in the week to 256.4 million barrels, compared with expectations for a 1.8 million-barrel rise.

Distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, fell by 1.7 million barrels in the week, versus expectations for a 790,000-barrel drop.

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