By Arathy Somasekhar
HOUSTON, March 29 (Reuters) - U.S. crude oil stockpiles fell unexpectedly last week as refineries restarted operations after maintenance and imports fell to a two-year low, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.
Crude inventories USOILC=ECI fell by 7.5 million barrels in the week to March 24 to 473.7 million barrels, compared with analysts' expectations in a Reuters poll for a 100,000-barrel rise.
Stocks at the Cushing, Oklahoma, delivery hub for U.S. crude futures USOICC=ECI fell by 1.6 million barrels last week, the EIA said.
"A combination of higher refining activity, lower imports and ongoing strength in exports has resulted in a large draw to crude inventories," said Matt Smith, lead oil analyst of Americas at Kpler.
Oil futures spiked briefly after the EIA report but gave up the gains later with Brent crude LCOc1 up 0.3% on the day at $78.90 a barrel and U.S. crude CLc1 0.7% higher at $73.70 by 11:34 a.m. ET (1534 GMT). O/R
A narrow discount between U.S. crude futures and global benchmark Brent limited imports, which fell about 850,000 barrels to 5.3 million bpd, its lowest since March 2021. Meanwhile, exports were elevated at 4.6 million bpd.
On a net basis, crude imports USOICI=ECI fell to 741,000 bpd, the second lowest weekly level on record, according to EIA data.
Refinery operations hit their highest so far this year with crude runs USOICR=ECIrising 437,000 bpd to 15.8 million bpd, and utilization rates USOIRU=ECIup by 1.7 percentage points to 90.3% of total capacity.
Gasoline stocks USOILG=ECI fell by 2.9 million barrels in the week to 226.7 million barrels, the EIA said, compared with analysts' expectations for a 1.6 million-barrel drop.
Tight gasoline inventories could push prices up to $5 a gallon at the pump and hurt demand during the start of summer driving season, said Robert Yawger, executive director of energy futures at Mizuho.
Distillate stockpiles USOILD=ECI, which include diesel and heating oil, rose by 300,000 barrels in the week to 116.7 million barrels, versus expectations for a 1.5 million-barrel drop, the EIA data showed.
(Reporting by Arathy Somasekhar in Houston Editing by Marguerita Choy)
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