NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil prices rose to near eight-week highs on Wednesday, with Brent crude futures at over $50 a barrel, as a fall in U.S. inventories bolstered expectations that the long-oversupplied market was moving toward balance.
Brent crude futures <LCOc1> were up 58 cents or 1.2 percent to $50.78 a barrel by 1:59 p.m. EDT (1759 GMT).
U.S. West Texas Intermediate futures <CLc1> rose 68 cents or 1.4 percent to $48.57 a barrel.
U.S. crude stocks fell last week as refineries hiked output and imports dropped, while gasoline stocks decreased and distillate inventories fell, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.
Crude inventories fell 7.2 million barrels in the week ending July 21, more than the expected decrease of 2.6 million barrels. The decline was the fourth consecutive drop, giving support to the market.
This added to hopes a long-awaited rebalancing was underway in the oil market. Saudi Arabia said on Monday it would limit oil exports to 6.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in August, down nearly 1 million bpd from a year earlier.
"Today’s report has strengthened the bullish sentiment already prevailing in the market, although the longevity of the move remains in doubt," said Abhishek Kumar, Senior Energy Analyst at Interfax Energy’s Global Gas Analytics in London. "Nevertheless, the country’s crude and gasoline stockpiles remain above their five-year averages, which will cap price gains."
The drawdown was a combination of higher exports from the United States, marginal decline in oil output and a rise in the refinery utilization rate, he said.
"The market has been tightening and the refinery margins are strong," said PetroMatrix managing director Olivier Jakob, saying the U.S. stock draw offered a boost to prices. "You add geopolitical risk premium for Venezuela, and you've got a strong market."
Venezuela, an OPEC member producing about 2 million bpd of oil, faces deepening economic woes and protests.
President Nicolas Maduro's opponents launched a two-day national strike on Wednesday to push him to abandon a weekend election. The United States is considering financial sanctions to halt dollar payments for Venezuelan oil. [nL1N1KH0BN]
Nigerian output slipped this week as leaks forced Shell to shut a pipeline exporting some 180,000 bpd of oil. Nigeria, which has been exempted from OPEC-led production curbs, has agreed to cap or cut output when it stabilised at 1.8 million bpd.
But analysts said the current oil price rally could encourage more production, particularly from the United States.
"Relieved bulls should be careful what they wish for. Any price rebound will only embolden U.S. shale producers at a time when rumours have started to emerge that the U.S. shale boom is slowing," PVM oil analyst Stephen Brennock said in a note.
(Additional reporting by Fergus Jensen in Singapore and Libby George in London; Editing by Frances Kerry and Andrew Hay)