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Oil Closes at Record Price Near $77 a Barrel

Oil surged more than 2 percent to a record high near $77 a barrel Thursday on renewed worries over supply from major exporter Nigeria and as conflict between Israel and Lebanon heightened international tensions.

Front-month U.S. crude last traded $1.75 higher at $76.70 a barrel, after hitting a record $76.85, while crude for April 2007 hit $80 a barrel. London Brent was up $2.31 at $76.70 after reaching a record $76.95.

Prices also rose as the Iran nuclear dispute headed back to the U.N. Security Council, North Korea walked out of talks with South Korea and crude inventories in top consumer the United States fell more than expected.

"Geopolitical tensions have stepped up — we are moving on to a new phase in Iran and Israel," said Mike Wittner of investment bank Calyon. "In the end, geopolitical risk is about a current supply disruption getting worse or a new one happening."

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In Nigeria, two suspected explosions at a crude pipeline operated by Agip, a unit of Italy's Eni, caused oil spills, Nigerian officials said. Eni denied reports of sabotage and extensive oil spills and said damage would be repaired soon.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc has already had to shut down 473,000 barrels per day of Nigerian supply, almost a quarter of output in Africa's top oil supplier, due to attacks by rebels.

Adding to Middle East tension, Israel blockaded Lebanese ports and struck Beirut airport Thursday, expanding reprisals that have killed 53 civilians in Lebanon since Hizbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers a day earlier.

Later on Thursday, the Israeli army said a rocket fired by Hizbollah hit Israel's third-largest city, Haifa.

Israel's ambassador to the United States called the attack a "major, major escalation" but a Hizbollah spokesman denied the group was responsible. Israeli naval vessels also fired on fuel tanks at Beirut's international airport, according to airport sources.

Supply breaks and growing Middle East tension mean oil prices may rise further, investors say. The Middle East pumps about a quarter of world output, although neither Israel nor Lebanon are producers.

"The next stop is $80," said Mark Matthias, chief executive of investment specialist Dawnay Day Quantum. "That's what the market is looking at now."

NO SHORTAGE

Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah al-Attiyah said there was no shortage of crude oil in world markets, blaming geopolitical tensions for the surge to record-high prices.

"The main thing is that we see that there is no shortage in the market at all," he told reporters. "Speculators are using the geopolitical situation to their benefit and we are seeing how the oil prices are reacting."

Qatar is the smallest producer in OPEC. The 11-member group has been powerless to stem oil's rally as rising world demand has used up much of the group's reserve production capacity.

Oil in New York is up 25 percent in 2006 because of supply cuts in Nigeria, the dispute over Iran's nuclear work and a flow of investment money into commodities. North Korea's missile tests have added to global tensions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday the world's fourth-largest oil exporter would not abandon its right to nuclear technology after Tehran's case was referred back to the U.N. Security Council.

In Asia, North Korea blamed the South for the collapse of their first high-level talks since Pyongyang's missile tests sparked a regional crisis, saying Seoul would "pay a price" for the failure.

Oil has rallied from below $20 in January 2002 driven by rising demand led by the United States and China, the second-largest oil consumer. Robust U.S. demand and falling inventories also supported oil's gain Thursday.

U.S. crude inventories slid 6 million barrels last week as imports fell, a government report said Wednesday. The drop was five times larger than the 1.2 million barrels forecast among analysts polled by Reuters.

U.S. motorists, who use over 40 percent of the world's gasoline, bought 1.7 percent more fuel in the past four weeks compared with a year ago. The data covered the Independence Day holiday weekend when annual gasoline demand peaks.

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