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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil futures rose on Thursday, with Brent gaining for the fifth straight session, lifted by stronger-than-expected economic data from the United States, a lower outlook for North Sea Brent production and persistent hopes for economic stimulus.
Prices drew early support from worries that Tropical Storm Ernesto could disrupt supplies, but the storm weakened and skirted the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which briefly pushed U.S. crude prices into negative territory.
U.S. crude recovered and settled a penny higher, while Brent crude held gains, supported by nagging worries over North Sea supply, analysts said.
In London, Brent crude for September delivery closed $1.08 higher at $113.22 a barrel, the highest settlement for front-month Brent since May 3. The session high was $113.43.
"The general mood is bullish - any dip is still being used as a buying opportunity," said Carsten Fritsch, an energy analyst at Commerzbank in Frankfurt.
"Given the supply risk, with falling North Sea output and the closure of three oil ports in Mexico, all this should lend support to prices," he added.
U.S. September crude eked out a 1 cent gain to settle at $93.36.
"Technically, (U.S.) crude oil is bullish short-term," said Rich Alexander, senior broker at Zaner Group in Chicago.
Brent's premium against U.S. crude rose $19.86, its highest since March 9 and up from $18.79 on Wednesday.
"We still look for the Brent-WTI (spread) to stretch to beyond $20 a barrel, with the Brent side providing virtually all of the impetus in this regard," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates in Galena, Illinois.
Trading volumes were light, with Brent down 18 percent from its 30-day average and U.S. crude off 9 percent from its 30-day average, according to Reuters data.
U.S. gasoline and heating oil futures closed at their highest since early May, a day after U.S. government data showed gasoline and heating oil inventories fell last week.
Rising gasoline prices in California in the wake of Monday's fire at Chevron Corp's (CVX.N) refinery in Richmond also helped lift gasoline futures. The travel group AAA said that the state's average retail price for regular gasoline jumped 5.2 cents to $3.927 a gallon on Wednesday, from Tuesday's level.
U.S. September gasoline rose more than 2 cents to close at $3.0008 a gallon, the highest settlement for front-month gasoline since May 10. September heating oil rose for fifth straight day, closing up nearly 3 cents at $3.0450, the highest for front-month heating oil since May 3.
Analysts said economic data fed investor hopes for U.S. growth prospects and the energy demand outlook. New claims for jobless benefits in the United States fell last week, and a separate report showed the trade deficit in June was the smallest in 1-1/2 years.
Worries about tighter North Sea output supported Brent, with production in September seen down 17 percent due to maintenance at the Buzzard oilfield and natural declines.
Hopes for further monetary easing from China persisted following data showing annual growth in Chinese factory output slowed in July to its weakest in more than three years, while retail sales missed market forecasts.
In the oil sector, China's refinery throughput inched up 1.1 percent in July, reversing a run of declines for three straight months, but the latest data was the second lowest this year as demand stayed tepid.
A report that top OPEC oil exporter Saudi Arabia trimmed production was also supportive, some analysts said. An industry source said Saudi Arabia pumped 9.8 million barrels per day in July, cutting output 300,000 bpd from June. <ID nL6E8J93XU>.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries gave a downbeat assessment of demand next year, which pressured prices in the morning.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it expected Tropical Storm Ernesto to further weaken as it moved over mountainous terrain on the Mexican mainland.
There were no reports of disruptions to state-run oil company Pemex's facilities in the south of the Gulf of Mexico. Three major oil ports -- Coatzacoalcos, Cayo Arcas and Dos Bocas -- remained closed.
Additional reporting by Claire Milhence and Simon Falush in London, Florence Tan in Singapore; Editing by Dale Hudson, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Steve Orlofsky