* US Senate, House of Representatives pass bills to aid Ukraine
* U.S. GDP, jobless data suggest improved economic outlook
* Nigeria to fall from top African export spot in May (Updates prices to settlement)
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK, March 27 (Reuters) - Crude oil futures rose on both sides of the Atlantic on Thursday, with U.S. crude up more than $1 per barrel to hit a three-week high as strong U.S. economic data and the end of refinery maintenance season signaled strong demand ahead for crude oil.
“You’ve got seasonal demand spiced with a little bit of geopolitical headlines,” said Stephen Schork, editor of The Schork Report, in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
U.S. crude for May delivery rose by $1.02 to settle at $101.28 a barrel, following a $1.07 rise in the previous session. It is up nearly two percent for the week, and has risen in six of the last eight sessions.
U.S. crude’s gains gave a lift to Brent, which also drew support from worries that possible Western sanctions on Russia’s energy sector could disrupt global supplies.
Brent for May delivery gained 80 cents to settle at $107.83 a barrel, narrowing the spread between the two benchmarks CL-LCO1=R to $6.55 by 22 cents, after the premium hit a session low of $6.00, its tightest since March 7.
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives easily passed bills to provide aid to Ukraine, back a $1 billion loan guarantee for the Kiev government and impose sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The United States and the European Union agreed on Wednesday to work together on preparing possible further economic sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and to make Europe less dependent on Russian gas.
The U.S. economy grew a bit faster than previously estimated in the fourth quarter, data showed, while the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week and touched its lowest level in nearly four months.
U.S. crude, or West Texas Intermediate (WTI), continued its upward trend following Wednesday’s data showing a further drain in oil inventories at the Cushing, Oklahoma delivery point for the NYMEX contract, which hit their lowest level since January 2012.
That oil is piling up along the U.S. Gulf Coast, home to nearly half of the nation’s refinery capacity, where maintenance season is coming to its close and refineries are preparing to churn out summer-grade gasoline.
“We know runs are about to increase significantly,” said Andy Lebow, vice president at Jefferies Bache in New York.
Low supply out of Libya and Nigeria lent further support to Brent. Oil theft is likely to push Nigeria off its spot as top African crude oil exporter in May, when exports could fall to their lowest since records began in 2009. (Additional reporting by Simon Falush in London, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Singapore; editing by Jane Baird, William Hardy, David Gregorio and Marguerita Choy)