Oil Settles a Touch Below $61 on High Demand, Iran Jitters

Oil prices rose more than a dollar to a new record near $61 Monday, reflecting traders' concerns about strong demand and potential supply bottlenecks.

Analysts said with $60 a barrel no longer a threshold — and amid continued concerns about refining capacities — prices appeared set to go even higher.

U.S. crude for August delivery traded at a new high of $60.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search), up $1.11, before settling up 70 at $60.54. U.S. crude futures were above $60 for every delivery month to October 2006 with December 2005 scaling a peak $62.35 a barrel.

London Brent set a record $59.59 a barrel for a gain of $1.23 before ending up 94 cents at $59.30.

Other petroleum products followed crude's rise.

Heating oil futures, which serve as a proxy for all distilate fuels, including jet fuel and diesel, rose by more than 3 cents to $1.68 a gallon. Gasoline futures surged 2.5 cents to $1.68 a gallon.

"The psychology of the market is that once $60 is breached, then there is tendency to test how much higher it can go, or how long $60 can be sustained," said Victor Shum, petroleum analyst at Texas-headquartered energy consultants Purvin & Gertz in Singapore.

"There's a lot of speculative activity. It is a red-hot market," said Shum.

Vienna's PVM Oil Associates shared that view.

"All looks set for oil prices to continue to remain high, which capacity tightness in many sectors of the industry means that any serious glitches are bound to make prices shoot (even) higher," its daily energy market report said. PVM also noted that the election of a perceived hard-liner as Iran's president and market speculation likely also were contributing to bullish sentiment.

After a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (search), Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search) said Nigeria is prepared to increase oil production if asked to do so by OPEC. Obasanjo said Nigeria prefers predictable oil prices.

"We do believe the prices of oil should neither be too high nor too low," he said.

Oil prices are more than 60 percent higher compared to a year ago, but would still have to surpass $90 to breach the all-time, inflation-adjusted high set 25 years ago.

Much of the worry surrounding crude is demand-driven speculation, analysts say, and it primarily surrounds how much supply there is currently and how much spare there is in the event of a production glitch.

With demand expected to average 84 million barrels a day in 2005, there is not enough of a supply cushion to shield the market from any prolonged output disruption. Excess production capacity is estimated to be about 1.5 million barrels a day, most of it in Saudi Arabia.

Another reason for trepidation among traders is the limited refining capacity in the United States, which is increasingly reliant on imports of gasoline. Therefore, any glitch in the U.S. refining system puts more strain on the global supply chain.

Still, record-setting prices have yet to cool demand for gasoline in the United States, where consumption is up — in a time when prices are 40 percent higher compared to a year ago.

"These high prices really have not significantly dented demand particularly in the United States market," said Shum. "U.S. refineries in the past week have been running very full at 96, 97 percent."

The Lundberg survey, which tracks gasoline prices from 7,000 gas stations in the United States, said Sunday prices at pumps across the country were up an average of 8 cents a gallon for the two-week period ending June 24.

With the summer driving season under way, the average retail price for all three grades of gas hit $2.24 a gallon on Friday, up from $2.16 on June 10.

OPEC President Sheik Ahmed Fahd Al Ahmed Al Sabah over the weekend began consultations with fellow members as to whether to release another half million barrels into the market, but said they would monitor prices further first.

"I think we've got to wait for a while to see exactly what is the behavior of the prices, because until now it's not clear," said Al Sabah.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (search) raised its production quota by 500,000 barrels in mid-June, bringing the official output target to 28 million barrels a day. However, traders brushed off the move as insignificant since it would further deplete the cartel's razor-thin supply cushion and because its members were already pumping above the quota.

Including Iraq, which is not bound by the quota, OPEC's production is close to 30 million barrels a day.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.