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Oil inches down but Brent ends week firmer on Iran concerns

[NEW YORK] Oil prices edged lower on Friday, although Brent still gained for a third straight week amid supply concerns should the United States reimpose sanctions on Iran.

Brent crude futures fell 10 cents, or 0.1 per cent, to settle at US$74.64 a barrel. This month, the global benchmark hit highs above US$75, a level last seen in late 2014.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures fell 9 cents to settle at US$68.10 a barrel, also a 0.1 per cent loss.

Brent gained about 0.5 per cent this week - its third consecutive weekly gain - while WTI posted a weekly loss of about 0.5 per cent.

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Hedge funds and other money managers cut their combined futures and options position in US crude in New York and London by 17,021 contracts to 455,885 during the week to April 24, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

US President Donald Trump will decide by May 12 whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of an agreement with six other world powers over Tehran's nuclear programme. The renewed sanctions would likely dampen Iranian oil exports, disrupting global oil supply.

"That's the biggest factor right now that's driving the market. And that's why you're seeing low volatility today and for the most part during the week," Rob Thummel, portfolio manager at energy investment manager Tortoise Capital in Leawood, Kansas.

"The market is just kind of waiting on that."

Brent has risen by around 6 per cent so far this month, while WTI was on track for a gain of nearly 5 per cent. The gains came despite a higher dollar, which hit its strongest since Jan 11 against a basket of currencies.

A stronger dollar makes greenback-denominated commodities more expensive for holders of other currencies.

Concerns about market tightness have also been fueled by the deteriorating political and economic situation in Venezuela that has led to a 40 per cent decline in crude output in the past two years.

Price increases have been capped by rising US production as shale drillers ramp up activity, underpinning a widening discount between Brent and WTI.

US crude's discount to Brent WTCLc1-LCOc1 hit its widest since Dec 28 at US$6.74 a barrel.

Surging US production, which rose to 10.59 million barrels per day last week, has encouraged record-high US exports.

US drillers added five oil rigs this week, bringing the total count to 825, the highest level since March 2015, and boosted the overall rig count by 28 this month, General Electric's Baker Hughes energy services firm said.

But while US producers are accelerating shale drilling in areas in the United States, higher production has not necessarily translated into stronger refining results for some oil companies.

Weak refining margins hurt two of the world's largest integrated energy companies for the second consecutive quarter, although Chevron Corp's oil production gains in the first quarter outshone its larger rival Exxon Mobil Corp.