Oil prices touched fresh nine-month peaks on Thursday after a heavy fall in U.S. fuel stocks just as the world's biggest energy consumer braces for another bout of cold weather.
New York crude futures rose 30 cents to $33.65 after hitting $33.78 in electronic trade, the highest front month point since March 18. London Brent was up 24 cents at $30.83 a barrel.
Prices have roared higher after the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesday reported a 5.1 million barrel drop in commercial crude stocks in the week to December 12.
The decline slashed inventories to 272.8 million barrels, 11.6 million below levels a year ago and the lowest December level since the government began tracking the data in 1982.
Distillates stocks, including key winter heating oil, dropped by 1.4 million barrels to 130.7 million barrels, sharpening fears over fuel supplies with more U.S. cold weather forecast for the second half of this month.
Weather forecaster Meteorlogix forecasts "a turn to a pattern featuring more persistent cold weather over the central and eastern United States" for the week from December 25-31.
"There has been unusually stormy weather hitting the east coast pretty early this year. If this continues, we could see further pressure on the heating oil component the distillate figure," said Edward Meir of Man Financial in a report.
Prices have risen nearly $6 a barrel, or more than 20 percent, since OPEC's September decision to cut supply by 3.5 percent. The cartel earlier this month decided to keep output limits unchanged, and meet again on February 10.
OPEC President Abdullah al-Attiyah of Qatar said on Tuesday he was concerned that current oil prices are too high but said it was not because supplies were too low.
OPEC's biggest producer, Saudi Arabia, expressed less concern about prices. Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi has said current prices were justified by the weakness of the dollar against major currencies, which reduced oil producers' purchasing power.
OPEC's reference crude price rose to $30.45 on Wednesday, well above the top end of the cartel's $22-28 target price range.
Prices have been supported by strong fuel demand growth in China and by repeated sabotage against Iraq's oil facilities which has delayed a return to pre-war export levels.
A senior Iraqi oil official said on Wednesday Iraq's northern export pipeline, running from the northern Kirkuk oilfields to the Mediterranean oil export port of Ceyhan, had come under fresh attacks on the day the U.S. announced the weekend capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"Security measures remain insufficient to start the pipeline," Adel Kazzaz, head of the North Oil Company, told Reuters by telephone from Kirkuk.