Oil prices extended gains on Wednesday as China reported its lowest daily number of new coronavirus cases since late January, stoking investor hopes that fuel demand in the world's second-largest oil consumer may begin to recover from the epidemic.

Brent crude was up $1.12, or 2.1 percent, at $55.13 per barrel at 0748 GMT. The US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) rose 74 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $50.68 a barrel. According to data through Tuesday, the growth rate of new coronavirus cases in China has slowed to the lowest since Jan. 30. Still, international experts remained cautious over forecasting when the outbreak might reach a peak.

Travel restrictions on China have cut fuel usage

Oil industry
Oil industry Pixabay

Travel restrictions to and from China and quarantines have cut fuel usage. The two biggest Chinese refiners have said they will reduce their processing by about 940,000 barrels per day (bpd) as a result of the consumption drop, or about 7 percent of their 2019 processing runs.

"As the growth rate of new cases has decreased ... that has improved the (market) sentiment," said Kim Kwang-rae, commodities analyst at Samsung Futures in Seoul. The demand concerns from the outbreak pushed Brent and WTI to their lowest in 13 months on Monday. Both benchmarks are down more than 20 percent from highs reached in January.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Tuesday cut its global oil demand growth forecast for this year by 310,000 bpd as the virus outbreak crimps oil consumption in China. Demand worries flipped the oil market into contango last week, a market structure where prices for near-term contracts are lower than those for later contracts, indicating ample supplies.

Contango spread in Brent is unchanged at 15 cents per barrel from a week earlier, while the WTI contango is at 24 cents a barrel, from 17 cents last week. "Front-month prices are down around 20 percent since the start of the outbreak, with Brazilian, West African and Russian crudes - all popular with independent (Chinese) refiners in Shandong - under pressure," said Roger Diwan, vice president of financial services at HIS Markit, in a note.

OPEC+ recommended a further cut of 600,000 bpd last week

On the supply side, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies including Russia, known as OPEC+, recommended a further cut of 600,000 bpd last week to stem the oil price fall. However, Russia has been hesitant to commit to the additional cut, while Saudi Arabia wanted global major oil producers to agree a quick oil supply cut. The US crude inventories rose by six million barrels in the week to February 7 to 438.9 million barrels, beating analysts' expectations for an increase of three million barrels, data from industry group the American Petroleum Institute showed.