Brent crude oil prices fell and U.S. crude oil prices rose in light trading on Wednesday, after a report of rising U.S. crude oil and gasoline inventories reinforced concerns about the oil demand outlook in the world's top petroleum consumer.
U.S. RBOB gasoline futures slumped over 2.5 percent, losing nearly 9 cents a barrel and registering the biggest percentage losses in the oil futures complex on an unexpected rise in inventories at a time when demand normally picks up as the warm weather driving season gets under way.
A strong U.S. equities market lent oil prices some support. The S&P 500 rose to a historic high on Wednesday afternoon, led by technology stocks.
U.S. crude oil prices rose, at one point gaining more than 60 cents from Tuesday's close, as traders sold off RBOB gasoline and bought U.S. West Texas Intermediate oil.
U.S. crude oil inventories rose by 250,000 barrels to reach the third-highest level on record for the week ending April 5, according to data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The rise was less than the 1.4 million barrels predicted by analysts polled by Reuters.
"People in today's trade are not just selling a few contracts of gas, they're also selling the gas crack spread, selling RBOB and buying U.S. crude against it," said Timothy Evans, an energy analyst at Citi Futures Perspective in New York.
The U.S. government's inventory data arrived after OPEC on Wednesday trimmed its forecast for global demand growth, echoing similarly low demand expectations cited earlier this week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its monthly outlook.
"We have more than ample supplies of oil on hand, so we don't have real support for rising prices from that factor," said Gene McGillian, an analyst with Tradition Energy in Connecticut.
The decline in the price of Brent crude oil was curbed by data showing China imported more oil in March than February, the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program and tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Brent May crude settled down 44 cents to $105.79 a barrel, having retreated from a session high of $106.47. Brent's May contract expires on Monday.
U.S. May crude settled up 44 cents at $94.64 a barrel, having swung from $93.40 to $94.82.
Trading volumes for both Brent and U.S. crude oil were below their 30-day moving averages.
U.S. May gasoline settled down more than 7.5 cents at $2.865 a gallon, going below the 100- and 200-day moving averages, technical levels monitored by chart watching traders.
Trading volume for RBOB gasoline futures was 3 percent above its 30-day moving average.
U.S. May heating oil slipped just above 1 cent.
U.S. OIL INVENTORIES
The rise in U.S. crude stocks brought bulging commercial inventories to more than 388 million barrels, the highest level since July 1990.
The inventory rise was less than the expected build of 1.4 million barrels in a Reuters survey of analysts, but still left stockpiles 26.2 million barrels above the same period in 2012.
Gasoline stocks rose 1.7 million barrels last week, the EIA said, counter to expectations stocks would be lower as is typically the case in spring. Inventories on the East Coast, which includes the New York Harbor, delivery point for the U.S. futures contract, jumped 1.5 million barrels.
U.S. distillate stocks fell last week, but only by 165,000 barrels, significantly less than the drop of 1.3 million barrels anticipated.
CHINA OIL IMPORTS PICK UP
China imports of key commodities rebounded in March from the previous month.
Crude oil imports rose only 0.2 percent in March from February, a much more modest month-on-month increase than the 7.2 percent jump in copper imports or the 14.4 percent rise for iron ore.
Less bullish were figures showing crude imports fell 2.1 percent in March versus the year ago period.
(Additional reporting by Robert Gibbons in New York, Peg Mackey in London and Ramya Venugopal in Chennai, India; Editing by Grant McCool)