U.S. crude oil stockpiles last week fell by nearly 10 million barrels, the most since July, boosted by strong export and refining demand, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said March 20.

Refined product inventories also fell more than expected.

Crude inventories fell by 9.6 million barrels in the week to March 15, surprising analysts who had expected an increase of 309,000 barrels, according to a Reuters poll.

That brought overall crude inventories, not including the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, down to 439.5 million barrels, the lowest since January.

Crude stocks at the Cushing, Okla., delivery hub were also down by 468,000 barrels, the EIA said.

Net U.S. crude imports fell last week by 660,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) as exports alone rose over 800,000 bpd to 3.4 million bbl/d, near an all-time record.

The four-week moving average of exports last week was 3 million bbl/d, double where it was at this time a year ago, as the four-week average of imports fell to 6.6 million bbl/d, the lowest since March 1996.

U.S. crude prices rose after the data was released, hitting levels not seen since Nov. 12. West Texas Intermediate crude futures were up 22 cents, or 0.4 percent, at $59.25 per barrel as of 9:55 a.m. CST (14:55 GMT), after touching a high of $59.60 a barrel. Brent crude rose 27 cents to $67.86 a barrel.

“I think we’re starting to see the impact of the OPEC production cuts. We’re seeing the impact of the Venezuelan cuts, they’re starting to show up in the numbers. Refiners are responding to strong demand, so they’re keeping those numbers relatively high," said Phil Flynn, analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago.

OPEC and its allies have curbed supplies since the beginning of the year, while U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran have cut exports.

U.S. crude production has, however, been surging to record highs since last year, with output last week rising 100,000 bbl/d, back to its 12.1 million-bbl/d peak. "Domestic production held steady, but even at 12 million barrels per day, the export wave is keeping supplies from growing. Demand for gasoline rose sharply, as well, rivaling peak demand levels," said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital in New York.

Refinery crude runs rose by 178,000 bbl/d as utilization rates rose by 1.3 percentage points to 88.9% of total refining capacity, the highest in nearly two months, EIA data showed.

Gasoline stocks fell by 4.6 million barrels, compared with analysts' expectations in a Reuters poll for a 2.4 million-barrel drop.

Distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, fell by 4.1 million barrels, vs. expectations for a 1.1 million-barrel drop, the EIA data showed.