Oil Closes At Three-Month High On Iran, Refinery Concerns

U.S. crude oil futures ended at their highest level in three months on Monday, fueled by international tensions over Iran's nuclear program and its capture of British naval personnel.

May crude closed at $62.91 a barrel, trading from $62.34 to $63.30 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The day's intraday peak was the highest front-month crude price for the year and the highest since crude reached $63.59 on Dec. 21. In London, May Brent crude was up $1.27 at $64.45 and dealt from $63.33 to $64.63.

Elsewhere on the NYMEX, gasoline futures struck fresh seven-month highs amid refinery glitches and with forecasts ahead of midweek government inventory data calling for an inventory drawdown last week. Heating oil futures also held large gains, likewise helped by forecasts for another weekly supply drop.

BP Plc reduced rates at the 175,000 barrel-per-day gasoline-making unit at its refinery in Whiting, Indiana, after a small fire on Thursday disabled a feeder unit, according to trading sources.

"The (energy) markets are very bullish on the Iran situation and was also helped by the refinery fire at Whiting," said Phil Flynn, analyst at Alaron Trading in Chicago.

NYMEX April RBOB gasoline last traded up 6.97 cents at $2.068 a gallon, moving from $1.9915 to $2.07 which marked the highest since prices hit $2.08 on Aug. 16, 2006.

NYMEX April heating oil was up 6.50 cents to $1.776 a gallon, also the session high. It moved as low as $1.711 earlier.

Also supportive to refined products futures was news that production at Esso's 115,000-bpd refinery at Fos in southern France has been hit by the 13-day strike at the Fos-Lavera oil port hub, a company spokesman said on Monday.

Later in the day, a draft agreement between the strikers and port authorities was drawn up to end the strike. Strikers will vote on the draft on Tuesday.

The leaders of Russia and China said on Monday in Moscow the stand-off over Iran's nuclear ambitions should be resolved exclusively through peaceful means.

"Russia and China stress that the Iranian nuclear problem should be solved exclusively though peaceful means and negotiations," Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a joint declaration signed during Hu's visit to the Russian capital.

Iran said British sailors it detained are fit and well but has not disclosed where they are being held. Naval Revolutionary Guard units seized the 15 sailors and Marines in the Gulf on Friday, creating a diplomatic crisis -- just a day before the United Nations imposed new sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

Iran on Sunday vowed it would continue its nuclear program despite the U.N. Security Council's unanimous approval of fresh sanctions against the world's fourth-largest oil exporter. Tehran also said it would limit cooperation with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency.

The United States and France have three aircraft carrier battle groups in the Gulf region, U.S. and French naval sources said on Monday.

Meanwhile, the chief of the International Energy Agency, Claude Mandil, said in Paris on Monday that oil prices are currently too high and oil-producing nations should increase output, while also advocating consumer countries cut consumption.

Industry analysts forecast in a Reuters poll that U.S. crude oil inventories probably rose 1.9 million barrels last week, increasing for the third consecutive week.

Distillate distillates and gasoline inventories fell 1.3 million barrels and 2.3 million barrels, respectively. That would be the ninth unbroken weekly increase for distillate stocks and the seventh straight weekly build for gasoline stocks, if the forecasts hold.