Oil futures edged lower Thursday, but U.S. prices have held ground above the $50 mark for more than a week as traders eye the pace of Chinese imports, global demand forecasts, and declines in U.S. crude inventories against a backdrop of surging COVID-19 cases.

“Energy shortage fears are spreading across Asia as winter has been relentless across that continent,” Phil Flynn, senior market analyst at The Price Futures Group, wrote in a daily report Thursday.

“Despite concerns of rising cases of Covid and mixed signals on Chinese oil imports, expectations for China oil demand is rising and is poised to move higher,” he said.

China’s crude imports declined to a 27-month low of 9.096 million barrels a day in December, news reports said, though total 2020 imports jumped 7% to 10.86 million barrels a day.

“Chinese refiners are busy trying to refine heating fuels as winter in Asia is brutal this year,” said Flynn. “The demand for fuel is driving up prices and there are reports of some shortages.”

Still the decline in monthly imports sounded “alarm bells,” said Eugen Weinberg, commodity analyst at Commerzbank, in a note.

“It is quite possible, just like with base metals, that Chinese traders and refineries imported more crude oil than they needed — partly for strategic storage reasons and partly on speculative grounds — and that imports will therefore slow this year,” he said, in a note.

West Texas Intermediate crude for February delivery CL.1, -0.40% CLG21, -0.40% fell 33 cents, or 0.6%, to $52.58 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices for the front-month contract have settled above $50 for each session since Jan. 6, FactSet data show.

March Brent crude BRN00, -0.91% BRNH21, -0.91%, the global benchmark dropped 60 cents, or 1.1%, to $55.46 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, in a monthly report released Thursday, left its forecast for world oil-demand growth in 2021 unchanged from its December estimate. The cartel expects crude demand to only partially recover from the 9.8 million barrel decline suffered in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

OPEC said it expects demand growth to rise to 95.9 million barrels a day this year, up 5.9 million barrels a day.

The report ” highlighted the risks to the economic recovery this year which will naturally impact these forecasts in the coming months,” said Craig Erlam, senior market analyst at Oanda, in a market update.

“Ultimately, oil prices look pretty comfortable above $50 after OPEC+ last week provided further support to the markets in the current challenging environment,” he said.

“We may see a minor pull back now, especially if the dollar continues to see further support from rising yields, but I don’t expect it will be overly significant as traders appear to have full faith in the cartel to respond accordingly and quickly,” said Erlam.

In other Nymex dealings Thursday, natural-gas futures held onto most of their early gains after the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported a larger-than-expected weekly fall in U.S. supplies of the fuel.

Domestic supplies of natural gas declined by 134 billion cubic feet for the week ended Jan. 8, the EIA reported. On average, the data were expected to show a drop of 123 billion cubic feet for the week, according to analysts polled by S&P Global Platts.

February natural gas NGG21, +0.48% rise 2.2 cents, or 0.8%, to $2.749 per million British thermal units.

Among the petroleum products, February gasoline RBG21, -1.25% fell by 1.6% to $1.5248 a gallon and February heating oil HOG21, -0.30% lost 0.5% to $1.5914 a gallon.

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