By Shadia Nasralla
LONDON (Reuters) - Oil prices rose on Thursday to their highest since late 2014 as U.S. crude inventories declined, moving closer to five-year averages, and after sources told Reuters that top exporter Saudi Arabia aims to push oil prices higher.
Brent crude futures (LCOc1) rallied as high as $74.44 a barrel, the strongest since Nov. 27, 2014 -- the day OPEC decided to pump as much as it could to defend market share, sending the price to a low of $27 just over a year later.
Brent futures were at $74.23 a barrel at 1115 GMT, up 75 cents from the previous close.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures (CLc1) rose 61 cents to $69.08. WTI had earlier hit $69.27, its highest since Dec. 2, 2014.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major producers including Russia started to withhold output in 2017 to rein in oversupply that had depressed prices since 2014.
OPEC and its partners will meet in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 20. OPEC will then meet on June 22 to review its oil production policy.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that top oil exporter Saudi Arabia would be happy for crude to reach $80 or even $100 a barrel, which was viewed as a sign that Riyadh will not seek changes to the supply pact.
"The Saudis and their colleagues in OPEC need higher oil for their fiscal positions and the Kingdom is on a bold and costly reform programme. So they might continue to squeeze the lemon while they have the chance," said Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at futures brokerage AxiTrader.
Since the start of the supply cuts, crude inventories have declined gradually from record highs towards long-term average levels.
In the United States, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said on Wednesday that commercial crude stocks fell close to the five-year average of about 420 million barrels.
Also supporting prices is the possibility that the United States might reimpose sanctions on Iran, OPEC's third-largest producer, which could result in further supply reductions from the Middle East.
But some analysts saw limits to the bull market.
"We feel we are at the point where further price support is unlikely unless there is an (unexpected OPEC) supply cut," said Georgi Slavov, head of research at brokerage Marex Spectron.
PVM analysts also pointed to rising U.S. output and rig counts.
"Current oil prices are not justified by underlying oil fundamentals," they said.
"This is not to say that the current $74-plus Brent price is not vindicated by other factors, but based purely on global supply and demand data, prices should not be this high."