Updated from 2:20 p.m. EST
Crude oil prices flirted with a record high but closed shy of the mark Tuesday, as OPEC members disagreed about the cartel's need to raise production at its meeting in Iran on Wednesday.
The April futures added 10 cents at $55.05 a barrel in Nymex floor trading, having traded lower for most of the day.
Prices traded as high at $55.45 Tuesday but failed to eclipse their record close of $55.17 touched in October of last year. The intraday high of $55.67 was also set last October and was almost breached last week.
OPEC members appear divided about whether the cartel should agree to raise production by 500,000 a barrels a day. Both Saudi Arabia -- the cartel's top producer and most influential member -- and OPEC's president said Monday that such an increase was possible, indeed likely, should prices remain at current levels. Saudi Arabia also said it will provide as much supply as possible by using its excess capacity.
Other members, including Libya and Iran -- the cartel's second-biggest producer -- appear opposed.
on Tuesday reported that Kuwait said the cartel had already agreed to a 500,000-barrel-a-day cut.
The OPEC meeting will cap weeks of speculation about whether the cartel will keep output at the current official level of 24 million barrels a day -- even though members are thought to be producing much more than their individual quotas. The cartel cut production by a million barrels a day, effective Jan. 1, having boosted production three times by a total of 2.5 million barrels a day in the second half of last year as prices marched irrevocably higher. Saudi Arabia was instrumental in pushing through those output increases.
The OPEC issue has assumed greater importance because of an unusually long cold snap in parts of northeastern U.S., which has inflated demand for heating oil at a time of the season during which supplies are usually on the decline.
A year ago at this time, the benchmark U.S. crude was trading around $37 a barrel.