Domestic crude stocks increased for the fourth time in five weeks as upticks in imports and production more than offset rising demand, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said Wednesday.

EIA said oil inventories for the week ended Nov. 19, excluding those in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), increased by 1.0 million bbl from the previous week.

Oil imports averaged 6.4 million b/d last week, up by 245,000 b/d from the previous week, EIA reported in its latest Weekly Petroleum Status Report. Over the past four weeks, the agency said imports averaged about 6.2 million b/d, up 19% from a year earlier.

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Meanwhile, production last week rose to 11.5 million b/d from 11.4 million b/d the prior week. That was well above the 10.5 million b/d level of a year earlier, EIA reported. Output for the year has climbed following strong demand through the summer and fall, and it is projected to continue rising through the end of this year. However, it remains more than 1 million b/d below pre-pandemic levels and is not expected to return to that level before next year, EIA has said.

That’s notable because demand, while uneven on a weekly basis, continues to climb on a year-over-year basis.

Demand edged up 1% week/week, with travel fuel consumption up modestly from already strong levels.

Total products supplied over the last four-week period – EIA’s terminology for demand — averaged 20.7 million b/d, up 7% from the same period last year. Motor gasoline consumption averaged 9.3 million b/d, up 12%, while jet fuel demand spiked 40% to more than 1.5 million b/d.

Mounting consumption amid a rebound in travel from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic is putting steady pressure on both oil prices and consumer fuel costs.

The average price that consumers paid at the pump for gasoline on Monday was $3.40/gallon – 62% higher than the comparable day before Thanksgiving a year earlier and the highest level since 2012, EIA said. Gasoline prices are up more than 30% from November 2019, prior to the pandemic.

West Texas Intermediate crude futures – the U.S. benchmark – topped $85/bbl this fall, a seven-year high. International Brent oil prices also have surged.

With inflation worries intensifying, U.S. President Biden said Tuesday his administration would release 50 million bbl of crude from the SPR in a coordinated effort with China, Japan, India, South Korea and the UK.

Analysts said the move could elicit backlash from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its Russia-led allies known as OPEC-plus.

What’s Next for OPEC-Plus?

Global output is rising, led by OPEC-plus, though production is not expected to align with demand until sometime next year. The cartel began in August to increase production at a 400,000 b/d monthly pace. OPEC officials have said that, if increases continue at that level and the coronavirus does not take a severe turn for the worse, supply/demand balances should align in the first half of 2022.

Notably, however, OPEC-plus officials consistently have said they are moving at a measured pace because of concerns that virus outbreaks could at least temporarily curb demand this winter. They have most recently noted surges in case counts across swaths of Europe.

OPEC-plus meets Dec. 2 to decide whether to maintain production increases into 2022, and analysts said the cartel’s next step is a wildcard.

The Biden announcement “could offer an interesting supply poker game ahead. If the move is seen as aggressive by OPEC-plus, the group could in theory even cut back supply into January to maintain its profits,” Rystad Energy analyst Bjornar Tonhaugen said.

Robert Yawger, Mizuho Securities USA LLC’s director of Energy Futures, offered a different view. OPEC-plus “would hate to give away market share, even if it were to SPR barrels,” he said. “Of course, ultimately, you never know, and OPEC-plus could certainly surprise.”Absent a widespread pandemic resurgence, OPEC has predicted that world oil consumption would grow by 5.8 million b/d in 2021 and another 4.2 million b/d next year, reaching an average of about 100 million b/d. That would put demand on par with 2019 levels.