Oil prices ease in early trading; set to post weekly gains

(Reuters) – Oil prices eased in early trading on Friday, but were set to close higher for the week on positive economic data from the United States and China and a draw in U.S. crude stocks.

Brent crude futures eased 32 cents, or 0.39%, to $82.12 a barrel by 01:15 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude fell 41 cents, or 0.5%, to $76.95.

The Brent benchmark was set to close 4.5% higher for the week, while the U.S. benchmark was set to rise 4.8%. Both were on track for their second straight week of gains.

Chinese officials have asked their Iranian counterparts to help rein in attacks on ships in the Red Sea by the Iran-backed Houthis, or risk harming business relations with Beijing, sources said, in a move that helped ease worries of potential supply disruption.

The Houthis would continue targeting ships linked to Israel until aid reaches the Palestinian people in Gaza, the group’s leader said on Thursday.

Boosting prices for the week, however, were a larger-than-expected draw in crude inventories, strong economic data from the United States and China, and worries of supply disruption after a Ukrainian drone attack on an oil refinery in southern Russia this week.

U.S. crude oil stockpiles fell by 9.2 million barrels after winter weather hit crude production, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.

On the demand side, supporting prices this week, data showed that the U.S. economy grew more quickly than expected in the fourth quarter and China announced a deep cut to bank reserves to spur growth.

Traders also piled on bets that the European Central Bank will cut interest rates from April as they took the view that policymakers are growing more comfortable with the inflation outlook. Lower borrowing costs can boost economic growth and oil demand.

(Reporting by Arathy Somasekhar in Houston; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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