NEW YORK--U.S. crude-oil futures prices rose Thursday, lifted by the strongest demand from refiners since July.
Analysts said prices also drew support from mixed U.S. economic data, which they said could lead the Federal Reserve to keep its bond-buying program in place until at least January.
New claims for U.S. jobless benefits rose last week by 368,000, the largest increase in more than a year, the Labor Department said. The data topped economists' forecasts of a rise of 328,000.
Meantime, U.S. retail sales in November climbed by 0.7%, slightly above expectations, and were up 4.7% from a year earlier, the Commerce Department said.
Carl Larry, analyst at Oil Outlooks and Opinions, said the still uncertain jobs picture raises the odds that the Fed won't begin to reduce its stimulus program this month. The ongoing bond-buying program has contributed to strength in oil prices, analysts said.
"The economy is starting to look good and getting better, but we're far from looking great," Mr. Larry said, adding he expects the Fed to remain cautious.
Light, sweet crude oil for January delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange was 43 cents higher, at $97.87 a barrel.
ICE Brent crude oil was 65 cents lower, at $109.05 a barrel, pressured by expectations that Libya soon will resume oil exports that have been curtailed by labor disputes.
U.S. oil inventories dropped by a huge 10.585 million barrels last week, the Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday, as refiners lifted processing rates to 16.1 million barrels a day, the most since July and a record high for December.
Refinery output of distillate fuel (diesel/heating oil) hit a record high last week as oil companies looked to boost exports of the fuel to Europe, Latin America and Asia, where demand is stronger than it is in the U.S.
Domestic crude oil output climbed to a 25-year high above 8 million barrels a day last week, and topped the year-earlier level by 1.2 million barrels a day. Use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques allow producers to extract crude oil from shale, slashing the need for U.S. to import crude oil.
The U.S. relied on foreign supplies to meet just 26.8% of oil demand of 18.554 million barrels a day last week, the lowest level on EIA's weekly data beginning in February 1991.
Net imports of crude oil and refined products dropped by nearly 3 million barrels a day from a year earlier to 4.97 million barrels a day, the lowest level since February 1992, EIA data show.
The strong refinery operations allowed petroleum products stocks to rise sharply, with gasoline stocks up 6.7 million barrels and distillate stocks up 4.5 million barrels. Analysts said there is concern that U.S. oil demand needs to recover and exports need to continue at strong levels to avoid a glut of refined products.
Reformulated gasoline blendstock futures for January were 0.62 cent lower, at $2.6549 a gallon, while January diesel/heating oil futures were down 1.72 cents at $3.004 a gallon.
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