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Oil hits two-week lows as U.S. fuel stock build signals easing demand

A worker checks the valve of an oil pipe at the Lukoil company owned Imilorskoye oil field outside the West Siberian city of Kogalym, Russia, January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By David Gaffen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil fell 2 percent to the lowest in more than two weeks on Wednesday after a sharp rise in U.S. inventories of refined fuel suggested demand may be flagging, while U.S. crude production hit another weekly record.

Government data showed that U.S. crude stocks fell 5.6 million barrels, more than expected, though that was partially the result of the closure of the Keystone pipeline after a leak in South Dakota in mid-November, which cut flows to Cushing, Oklahoma. That line reopened Tuesday.

However, gasoline stocks rose by 6.8 million barrels and distillate inventories were up 1.7 million barrels, both exceeding expectations in a Reuters poll.

That hit prices of both crude and products in a market which is already heavily tilted bullish and thus potentially vulnerable to a selloff, analysts said.

Gasoline stocks tend to build in December, but at 221 million barrels of inventory, stocks are slightly above the five-year average for this time of year.

"Gasoline inventories are also now building as demand eases back even in the face of decent export numbers ... Gasoline futures have clearly broken technical support levels and ULSD (diesel) futures are testing them," said David Thompson, executive vice-president at Powerhouse, an energy-specialized commodities broker in Washington.

U.S. crude production rose to 9.7 million barrels per day, another weekly record, though short of all-time records reached in the 1970s. That increase may undermine efforts by global producers to cut supply.

Supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers that were extended at a meeting last week for the whole of 2018 have helped lift Brent prices by more than 40 percent since June.

Prices have slipped from November's peak, which represented two-year highs.

"The sentiment-driven support to crude oil prices has somewhat dissipated as market participants look beyond last week's OPEC meeting," said Abhishek Kumar, senior energy analyst at Interfax Energy’s Global Gas Analytics in London.

Brent crude futures (LCOc1) were down $1.31, or 2.1 percent, at $61.55 a barrel by 12:43 p.m. EST (1743 GMT), after reaching a session low of $61.36, the lowest since Nov. 17.

U.S. crude futures (CLc1) dropped $1.37, or 2.4 percent, to $56.25 after falling to as low as $56.12, the lowest since Nov. 20.

Russian Oil Minister Alexander Novak said it was too early to talk about exiting the OPEC agreement, and that the process would be gradual. Analysts such as Goldman Sachs have said that the expected rise in demand in 2018 would mostly be offset by U.S. and Canadian supply growth.

U.S. oil production (C-OUT-T-EIA) has climbed by 15 percent since mid-2016 to 9.7 million bpd, close to levels of top producers Russia and Saudi Arabia.

"With U.S. production, we're still in the throes of seeing that go ever higher. There's only going to be more production coming which is very problematic for OPEC non-OPEC deal adherence," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital in New York.

(Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar, Scott DiSavino and Julia Simon in New York; Henning Gloystein and Keith Wallis in Singapore; Editing by David Evans and Marguerita Choy)