Crude oil futures inched lower Thursday but held above $49 a barrel after government data confirmed a large build in US oil inventories.
The nation's stockpile of gasoline declined by 3.2 million barrels as US buyers scrambled for fuel supplies and more than a dozen major refineries were knocked offline.
In the case of Irma, analysts are more anxious that devastation wrought by the storm could sharply reduce demand for energy.
"Hurricane Irma is already impacting the natural-gas market with demand out of the southeast region dropping roughly 1.5 [billion cubic feet a day] over the past 24 hours", said Robbie Fraser, commodity analyst at Schneider Electric. Brent crude was down 67 cents or 1.2 percent to $53.82 a barrel after reaching its highest level since April at $54.80.
Inventories of rose by roughly 4.6m barrels in the week ended September 1, missing expectations of a rise of about only 4m barrels. With U.S. Gulf Coast ports and refineries out of commission, European and Asian refiners have had to increase production, elevating their demand for crude supplies.
US oil output fell by nearly 8%, from 9.5 million bbl/d to 8.8 million bbl/d, according to the Energy Information Administration.
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In the week after Harvey hit, USA crude exports dropped 749,000 barrels per day to 153,000 bpd.
The U.S. lost more than 20% of its refining capacity in the days after Harvey (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/more-refineries-come-off-line-in-harveys-wake-2017-08-30), though many refineries have since started to come back online.
Concerns about a potential hit to production along the Gulf coast from Hurricane Irma provided further support.
"Imports [of oil] to the U.S. Gulf Coast fell to levels not seen since the 1990s", ANZ bank said.
The Department of Homeland Security said it is waiving the Jones Act for a week, which will allow fuel to be shipped by foreign-flagged vessels instead of only US -flagged vessels to help ensure that emergency responders during Irma and in the wake of Harvey have enough motor fuel. It was the first weekly build in crude stockpiles for ten weeks. In the previous week, speculators had cut their bullish bets to a two-month low as Harvey made landfall.