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Oil prices steady near 2-year highs as market tightens

[NEW YORK] Oil prices steadied near two-year highs on Thursday as some investors booked profits, traders said, but the market outlook remained upbeat as Opec-led supply cuts tightened the market and drained inventories.

Brent crude was up 12 cents or 0.2 per cent to US$60.61 per barrel by 1.24pm (1724 GMT). On Wednesday, Brent reached US$61.70, its highest intraday level since July 2015. The contract is up by more than a third from its 2017-lows in June.

US light crude was up 13 cents, or 0.2 per cent, to US$54.43, almost 30 per cent above its 2017-lows in June.

Confidence has been fueled by an effort this year lead by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia to hold back about 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) in oil production to tighten markets.

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Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said supply and demand balances were tightening and oil inventories falling, while compliance with the Opec-led pact to curb supplies had been "excellent".

"Compliance as a whole for Opec up being rather strong," said Mark Watkins, regional investment manager at US Bank. "Now that we've flipped the calendar to November we have the Opec meeting at the end of the month. There's expectation that there will be positive comments about extending the cuts past March."

The pact to withhold supplies runs to March 2018, but there is growing consensus to extend the deal to cover all of next year.

Iraq's oil minister said that Opec's second-largest producer supports keeping curbs on global oil supply to bolster prices, adding US$60 per barrel would be an acceptable target price for his country.

Oil was also supported by falling US commercial crude inventories despite rising output.

US crude oil inventories fell 2.4 million barrels last week despite a 46,000 bpd increase in production to 9.55 million bpd.

Goldman Sachs said it expected year-on-year US oil production growth of 0.8 million to 0.9 million bpd at year-end 2017. That would put end-2017 output at 9.6-9.7 million bpd, close to its highest for at least three decades.

On Thursday the CEO of US independent oil producer Pioneer Natural Resources said it expected to export 2.3 million barrels of oil in the fourth quarter.

Traders said this was due to US crude trading at a wide discount to Brent, making exports attractive.

Analysts will be watching Friday's rig count data from US producers, said US Bank's Mark Watkins.

"If rig counts didn't increase with oil prices being at a higher level then we may be seeing a high water mark in the US shale production at this time."