By David Gaffen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil prices fell on Wednesday after a surprising jump in U.S. crude exports to a record 2 million barrels per day fanned worries about global oversupply.
U.S. crude stockpiles fell sharply last week, but crude exports rose to 1.98 million bpd, the Energy Information Administration said. [EIA/S]
U.S. exports have became more attractive to buyers because the price of U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI) futures has been trading at a steep discount to Brent.
Rising U.S. crude production has held down WTI prices, while Brent's price has been heavily influenced by policy directions over output cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
WTI (CLc1) settled down 44 cents to $49.98 a barrel while Brent (LCOc1) fell 20 cents to $55.80 a barrel.
The spread between the two benchmark's December contracts (WTCLc1-LCOc1), which had narrowed earlier in the day, widened again, to $5.54 a barrel from $5.31 before the data.
The concern among traders is that the heavy increase in U.S. exports - while shale production continues to rise - will undermine the OPEC-led efforts to reduce supply.
"The U.S. oil-production profile has forced OPEC and some non-OPEC countries participating in the ongoing output-cap agreement to re-evaluate their strategy," said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energy’s Global Gas Analytics in London.
U.S. crude inventories (USOILC=ECI) fell 6 million barrels in the week to Sept. 29, a much bigger decline than the decrease of 756,000 barrels analysts had expected. Gulf Coast refineries have been using more crude as they resumed operations after weeks of shutdowns following Hurricane Harvey.
Strategists viewed Brent as pricey after a third-quarter rally lifted it to mid-2015 highs by late September. A resumption in output at Libya's Sharara oilfield, which had been closed by armed brigades Sunday, fed the concerns.
"Fundamentals may not yet be strong enough to support a continued rally, especially in growth-dependent commodities such as oil," Ole Hansen, head of commodity strategy at Denmark's Saxo Bank, said in a quarterly outlook to investors.
Observers said a market rebalancing was well underway as a result of strong consumption and the OPEC-led output cuts.
On Wednesday, OPEC Secretary-General Mohammad Barkindo said he was confident his organisation could restore sustainable stability to markets. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he did not exclude an extension of output cuts until the end of 2018. Russia is part of the supply agreement.
Rising oil production in the United States, which is not involved in the deal, has limited price gains. U.S. output (C-OUT-T-EIA) hit 9.56 million bpd at the end of September, highest since July 2015, and drillers added six oil rigs in the week to Sept. 29, according to energy services firm Baker Hughes. (RIG-OL-USA-BHI)
(Additional reporting by Libby George and Ron Bousso in London; Henning Gloystein in Singapore and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio)