U.S. crude oil stockpiles fell unexpectedly last week as net imports dropped to a record low due to a surge in exports, while inventories at the key storage hub in Cushing, Okla., continued to slide, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said Feb. 22.

Crude inventories fell 1.6 million barrels (bbl) in the week to Feb. 16, compared with analysts' expectations for an increase of 1.8 million bbl.

Net crude imports fell last week by 1.6 million bbl/d to 4.98 million bbl/d, the lowest level since the EIA started recording the data in 2001.

Exports of U.S. crude jumped to just above 2 million bbl/d, close to a record high of 2.1 million hit in October. That helped to push net imports to the lowest level on record.

"Even though refinery runs dropped below 16 million barrels per day for the first time since the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, lower net imports have resulted in a draw," said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at Clipperdata.

"The big jump in crude exports appears to have been because the EIA included the first export cargo from LOOP [Louisiana Offshore Oil Port] in last week's number," he said.

The LOOP, the largest privately-owned crude terminal in the U.S., has completed the first very large crude carrier crude oil loading operation at its deepwater port, the company said Feb. 18. The supertankers can ship about 2 million bbl of oil.

Washington lifted a 40-year ban on oil exports in 2015, and since then tankers filled with U.S. crude have landed in more than 30 countries.

Oil prices rose after the data, with U.S. crude futures jumping more than $1 to a two-week high at $62.85/bbl.

"It was a trifecta for the bulls with imports down, Cushing inventories continuing to slide lower and exports of crude soaring to over 2 million barrels per day," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC in New York.

Crude stocks at the Cushing delivery hub, the delivery point for U.S. futures, fell by 2.7 million bbl, the ninth straight week of declines, the EIA said. The combination of a new pipeline running from the hub to Memphis, along with reduced flows from TransCanada Corp.'s (NYSE: TRP) Keystone pipeline, has more than halved supplies at Cushing since November.

Refinery utilization rates fell by 1.7 percentage points to 88.1% of total capacity as plant maintenance ramped up ahead of the high-demand summer season. Refinery crude runs fell by 329,000 bbl/d to 15.8 million bbl/d, EIA data showed.

Gasoline stocks rose 261,000 barrels, compared with analysts' expectations in a Reuters poll for a 283,000-bbl decline.

Distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, fell by 2.4 million bbl, vs. expectations for a 1.5 million-bbl drop, the EIA data showed.