Updated from 12:54 p.m. EDT

The steady ascent of oil prices came to at least a temporary end Monday, as the futures contract eased following a week in which crude set a series of all-time highs.

September crude closed down 59 cents at $66.27 a barrel on Nymex, after ending at a record high of $66.86 a barrel on Friday. Gasoline futures fell 4 cents to $1.96 a gallon.

The U.S. trade deficit rose more than expected to $58.8 billion in June, and is expected to reach $60 billion this year, largely because the import bill has risen as a result of high energy prices. The latest consumer sentiment index showed consumer confidence also fell more than expected in early August, suggesting resilient oil prices could start curbing consumer spending.

Economists admit economic growth in the U.S. has been slower than it otherwise would be if oil prices had been lower, but experts continue to see no risk for a recession.

Thorsten Fischer, senior economist at Economy.com, says that high oil prices actually reflect high demand, which in and of itself points to strong economic growth.

"High energy prices have shaved off some percentage of the growth rate but otherwise consumer spending, a strong housing market and job creation have been robust," Fischer says.

U.S. gasoline inventories fell for the sixth consecutive week amid refinery outages, lending support to a surge in gasoline spot prices to more than $2 a gallon. Crude and distillate inventories grew and are both at above-average levels.

"These days, brief operational snafus at refineries are viewed as reasons for

West Texas Intermediate prices to rise, but yet distillates and crude inventories continue to build," Merrill Lynch wrote in a research note to inventors. "So, it looks like the super-spikers get lucky, but we think it's more because of the speculative dollar player."

Meanwhile, developments in Iran continue to be on the bulls' radar.

Reuters

reported that new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nominated acting Tehran mayor Ali Saeedlou as the new oil minister Sunday.

Saeedlou said he would root out the "mafias" running Iran's oil industry and stop giving preferential treatment to foreign investors,

Reuters

reported.

Iran, the second-biggest OPEC oil producer, recently reinstated its nuclear development program, defying U.N. opposition. President Bush said over the weekend that the U.S. would consider a forceful reaction as the last resort.

Among companies,

Goodrich Petroleum

(GDP) - Get Report

, an independent gas and oil producer, said it had a second-quarter loss of $603,000, or 3 cents a share, compared with net income of $2.7 million, or 15 cents a share, last year. Results were driven by a substantial loss on derivatives, the company said. Shares of Goodrich Petroleum plunged $3.12, or 14%, to $19.25.

Shares of the major oil producers were trading lower early Monday.

Exxon Mobil

(XOM) - Get Report

dropped 0.6%,

Chevron

(CVX) - Get Report

fell 0.2%,

ConocoPhillips

(COP) - Get Report

lost 1%,

Royal Dutch/Shell

(RD)

, fell 0.6% and

BP

(BP) - Get Report

slid 0.9%.

The Philadelphia Oil Service Sector Index fell 2%, driven lower by a 3% drop at

Global Industries

(GLBL)

and a 2% decline at

GlobalSantaFe

(GSF)

.