AMSTERDAM: Oil prices rose 1 percent Thursday, clawing back some of the losses made a day earlier, but U.S. crude is on track for the steepest monthly losses in more than a year on demand concerns after floods knocked out a quarter of U.S. refining capacity. Prices also rallied in the oil products markets, with U.S. gasoline futures hitting a two-year high above $2 a gallon, buoyed by fears of a fuel shortage just days ahead of the Labor Day weekend that typically brings a surge in driving.
Hurricane Harvey, which brought record flooding to the U.S. oil heartland of Texas and has killed at least 35 people, has paralyzed at least 4.4 million barrels per day of refining capacity, according to company reports and Reuters estimates.
The shutdowns also led the U.S. government to tap its strategic oil reserves for the first time in five years Thursday, releasing 500,000 barrels of crude to a working refinery in Louisiana.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures were set to close the month down 7 percent, their steepest monthly loss since July 2016.
They were trading 1.4 percent up at $46.58 a barrel at 13:52 GMT.
“The current steep recovery follows yesterday’s steep drop. The sell-off was bigger than expected and we see some bargain hunting now,” said Hans van Cleef, senior energy economist at ABN Amro.
International benchmark Brent crude was up 58 cents, or 1.1 percent, at $51.44 a barrel. It had fallen more than 2 percent in the previous session. Analysts at Goldman Sachs and Stifel said they expected U.S. infrastructure outages to last several months but said it was difficult to estimate the exact damage.
Others saw potential for operational refineries to delay typical September seasonal maintenance to benefit from high prices.
“Refineries outside the affected area may delay maintenance to benefit from high processing margins,” Commerzbank oil analyst Carsten Fritsch said. “Hence, the negative impact on crude oil demand and oil product supply might be less severe than feared,” Fritsch added.
U.S. crude and product stocks, typically watched closely by oil investors because they reflect market balancing, were largely ignored this week. U.S. commercial crude stocks fell by 5.39 million barrels last week to 457.77 million barrels, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Wednesday.
That’s down 14.5 percent from record levels reached in March.
At the same time, the amount of crude entered into refineries reached a record high of 17.73 million bpd, the data showed. The number is expected to have dropped dramatically this week because of infrastructure closures.
Analysts at JBC Energy said that figure could slip to as low as 15-16 million bpd. Others said the refinery closures would lead to a rise in crude inventories. “We could see rising U.S. crude inventories in the next couple of weeks until demand from refineries recovers. But by the end of September I expect the situation to be almost back to normal,” said Frank Schallenberger, head of commodity research at LBBW.
The trend for shrinking oil stocks and expectations for a rise in global oil demand growth meant analysts polled on a monthly basis by Reuters raised their oil price forecasts for the first time in six months.